Arizona Ranger Sam Burrack has something of a reputation for finishing what he sets out to do -- usually with a shot from his Winchester. He'd been on the trail of five gunmen for days. Then there was four. And he doesn't plan on stopping until every member of the notorious Golden Riders is behind bars or underground. But when a few of the riders escape in a jailbreak, word gets back to gang leader Braxton Kane that his brother fell under the gun of a lawman. Now Burrack is both hunter and hunted, and if he doesn't live up to his reputation, he won't live very long.
Release date: October 7, 2014
Print pages: 304
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Listen to a sample
JUMPING THE GUN
The Badlands, Arizona Territory
Arizona Ranger Sam Burrack rode a thin, steep game trail up through a maze of large squat boulders and tall standing chimney rock. At the top of the trail there would be four gunmen waiting for him. He was certain of it. There had been five gunmen starting out last week, but yesterday he had reduced their numbers by one when he put a well-placed bullet squarely in the back of Cordell Kane—right between the shoulder blades. It was the best shot he could get, so he’d taken it, knowing that one fewer gun to face in the end could make the difference between dying or staying alive.
Now for the other four . . .
Two of the gunmen waiting up ahead for him were bank robbers Cutthroat Teddy Bonsell and an old ex-lawman turned outlaw, Jake Cleary. The other two were brothers by the name of Cundiff, Willie and Joe Cundiff. They would all be waiting with guns in hand, and this part of his hunt would be over—here atop a rocky hillside in the blazing sun. This was where their trail had brought him, Sam told himself, looking all around. Here was where their lawlessness would stop.
Beneath him, the barb, a coppery black-point dun took the trail at an easy walk, raising its muzzle now and then and sniffing the air up ahead. Sam thought it reasonable to believe that as long as he and the dun had been trailing these two miscreants, the horse had come to know their scent as well as it knew the scent of a bear, a coyote. It was just a notion he’d come to consider, knowing that horses were not always given credit for being as smart or as crafty as, say, a dog, a wolf or a mountain cat. Yet, he reminded himself, it had to be noted that the equine species had managed to survive among its many hungry predators for long ages past. That had to speak well for these fine fleet animals. Doesn’t it? he asked himself.
Of course it does. . . .
He patted a hand on the dun’s neck; the horse sawed its head a little and blew out a breath, as if in some silent agreement with him. They rode on another three hundred yards through twists and sharp turns around land-stuck boulders, and now and then past a lank and sparsely clad pine whose very presence implied that God had a strange sense of humor. Finally the top of the trail revealed itself against a blue cloudless sky. There the Ranger brought the dun to a halt and stepped down from his saddle, rifle in hand.
“Here’s as far as you go, Copper,” he said to the dun. The barb took a sidestep away from him as if to protest his decision and continue on in pursuit. But Sam held the reins firm-handed and rubbed the horse’s nose. “You think so now, but what if it doesn’t come out to suit us?”
The horse chuffed and slung its sweaty head a little, but then settled under such sage reasoning.
“That’s what I thought,” Sam said, cradling his Winchester in the crook of his elbow.
He led the horse a few feet to a lank pine where he loosened the cinch and dropped his saddle from the horse’s back. He slipped the bit from the horse’s mouth and spun one of the reins around a stub of a pine limb and tied it in a loose slip hitch that the horse could easily pull free if it needed to.
The coppery dun stared at him almost warily, Sam thought, as he peeled the trail glove from his right hand and shoved it down behind his gun belt.
“Don’t start being a worrier on me,” he said with a trace of a wry smile. He raised his big Colt from his holster, checked it and let it hang down his side, his thumb over the hammer. “I plan on coming back for you.”
• • •
At the top of the trail, Cutthroat Teddy Bonsell eased down behind the hot boulder he’d been lying on. His shirt glistened wet, covered with sweat from the heat of the boulder standing exposed with no shade on its sides or face. He pulled his shirt free from being stuck against his wet chest and fanned it back and forth as if to cool himself.
“Man!” he said to Jake Cleary sitting on the ground beside him in the boulder’s shade. “If hell’s any hotter than that, I pity the devil.”
“The devil ain’t in hell,” said Cleary, idly scratching his salt-and-pepper-colored beard. “He’s smart enough he’s laying somewhere in a cool stream. Did you see the lawman?”
“I saw him; he’s headed up,” said Cutthroat. “He’s riding slow, watching the ground.” He gave a thin grin. “Riding right into our laps.”
Cleary shook his head.
“What’s he still watching our tracks for? Where else could we be but here?”
“Ask him that when he gets up here,” said Cutthroat, levering a round into his rifle chamber. He looked along a line of rock where the brothers leaned, waiting, watching him, all four tired horses standing on their other side. Cutthroat Teddy raised his arm and swung it back and forth and pointed toward the trail on the far side of the boulder.
“No hurry yet,” said Cleary, seeing Teddy and the Cundiffs quickly preparing to meet the Ranger. “The way I figure, he’ll leave his horse down there a-ways and ease up the rest of the trail on foot.”
“The way you figure . . . ,” Cutthroat said flatly. He gathered the front of his shirt and squeezed sweat from it. “Let me tell you something, Jake. I’m the one who laid up there on my belly watching for him. We’re going by what I figure. He’ll be riding up here any minute. You’d best be ready to tell him hello.”
“I am ready,” Jake Cleary said, jiggling his rifle in the crook of his arm. He spat and wiped his hand across his mouth. “You never seen me when I was unready.”
Teddy settled a little.
“Riding, walking, I don’t care how he gets here. I just want the man dead and off our backsides.” He raised his hat and wiped sweat from his forehead. “I figured killing Cordy would have been good enough for him, the way these lawmen are,” he added in disgust.
Cleary just looked at him.
“How are they?” he asked.
Teddy shrugged, leveled his hat back atop his head.
“You know what I mean,” he said. “I figured he’d got himself a dead outlaw to show all the folks in Nogales. That’s all he cares about.”
Jake Cleary looked bemused, cocked his head curiously and gazed coolly at him.
“Are you sure you’ve ever heard of Ranger Sam Burrack?” he said quietly.
“Yes, I heard of him,” said Cutthroat Teddy. “He killed Junior Lake, a couple of other second-rate saddle bums. So what?” He gave a shrug. “It ain’t going to get me all wrought up and worried inside.” He gave a lopsided grin. “Come on,” he said, “let’s get around this boulder, be ready for him when he gets up here.” His grin widened. “Maybe he’ll tell you the story of how he killed Junior Lake and his gang of desperados.”
“I ain’t making him no bigger than he is,” Cleary grumbled, following Teddy around the large boulder.
“Hell, old man, everybody makes him bigger than he is,” said Cutthroat Teddy. “I expect I just ain’t as easily impressed as the rest of yas.” The two stopped on the other side of the boulder and waited as the Cundiff brothers walked over closer to them.
“I never said I was impressed with him,” Cleary said in a gruff tone. “I’m just saying what I know. He’s a tough nut, and a man ought to keep that in mind before trying to kill him.”
“Duly noted, Jake,” said Teddy with a smug grin. “However tough he is wouldn’t have meant spit once Brax found out he killed his brother Cordy.” He tapped his forehead proudly. “See, I figure we’re doing Brax a favor when we kill this fool.”
“You mean if we kill him,” Cleary put in grimly.
“Don’t cast doubt on me, old man,” Teddy warned. “I will split your gullet like a Christmas goose.”
Cleary grumbled under his breath, but he turned away and watched the trail the Ranger would be coming up. Teddy turned to the Cundiffs. As the two drew closer he waved them to a halt.
“What the hell are you doing coming over here?” he said in a harsh whisper. “This ain’t no church gathering! I need you both spread out, over there, the other side of the trail.”
Without even stopping, Joe and Willie Cundiff turned a tight circle and walked away toward the other side of the trail.
“Damn it,” Willie whispered sidelong to his younger brother. “I knew we should’ve gone on over there in the first place. Now we’ve made ourselves look like a couple of rubes, him having to tell us where to go.” He paused as they walked on, then said, “Makes it look like this is our first ambush or something. . . .”
• • •
To be on the safe side, the Ranger had left the trail a hundred yards below the top of the hill. There had been too many places where he knew he could be seen by anyone keeping watch above him. A hundred yards or less put him in a dangerous position. He didn’t like moving forward with the threat of rifle sights beading down on him, even though climbing around the rocky hillside off the trail was no less dangerous.
The last hundred yards had taken him over a half hour, but upon easing up out of the rocks and brush behind the big boulder he realized the extra time had been worth it. As soon as he stepped up and slipped around the side of the boulder he looked down and saw the Cundiff brothers sitting huddled in a stretch of brush. Ready, waiting for him, he told himself.
A dry-gulch in the making . . .
Across the rocky trail from the Cundiffs he saw Cutthroat Teddy Bonsell and Jake Cleary. It was easy to see that these two had grown tired of watching the trail and stood leaning against a rock twenty-five yards away. Both of them were facing toward him, Cleary with his head bowed on his chest. Teddy stood smoking a thin black cigar. He fanned the smoke away after each puff.
So far so good, Sam decided. He stood still just long enough to check his Colt and rifle, taking stock of himself out of habit. Then he raised the Winchester to the pocket of his shoulder and steadied it alongside the boulder. This shot would be tricky, he reminded himself, but he wanted to take Cutthroat Teddy alive if possible.
Here goes. . . .
Taking tight aim on the Colt holstered on Teddy’s hip, he let out a breath, feeling the rise and drop of the gun barrel with each steady beat of his heart. He relaxed his right cheek on the rifle stock as if settling in for a nap. Then he cut his breath short, saw the gun sights stop dead on their target; and he squeezed the trigger in that perfect moment of stillness, his breath, mind and heartbeat centered on the fine black point of his rifle sights.
“Jesus, God . . . !” he heard Teddy Bonsell shriek behind the roar of the rifle shot, throwing both hands up as if hit by a sudden attack of hornets. Sam levered a fresh round into the Winchester even as Bonsell’s holster, Colt and all, fell to the ground at his feet. The startled outlaw’s rifle flew from his hands as Sam’s rifle sights swung to Jake Cleary and he fired again. Cleary jerked back against the rock behind him, then staggered forward bowed at the waist.
The Ranger quickly levered another round as he saw Bonsell sidestep and reach down for his rifle in the dirt. Aiming for the rifle stock, Sam fired again. But this time instead of hitting the rifle stock, his shot sliced two of Bonsell’s fingertips off at the top knuckles and sent the bloody inch-long nubs flying up into the outlaw’s face. Cutthroat Teddy let out another shriek, this one louder, longer.
“Don’t shoot . . . !” Bonsell shouted, rolling down into a ball against the rock, gripping his left wrist, blood running from the mangled fingers. Both of his guns had fallen three feet away. He dared not reach for them. Jake Cleary lay rolling writhing in pain, still bowed at the waist, his feet scraping, walking him in a circle on the rocky dirt.
Sam swung the Winchester toward the Cundiffs as pistol shots resounded from their position. One of their bullets thumped the ground at his feet, another zipped past his shoulder. But before he could return fire, he saw the two brothers bounding in and out of sight, firing backward over their shoulders as they skittered down off the trail, breaking brush, hopping over rocks, stumbling back to their feet, continuing on without missing a beat.
That went well enough. . . .
The Ranger let out a tight breath. In the waft of gray rifle smoke he waited and watched the rocky hillside for a moment longer. Twenty-five yards away Cleary groaned in pain and Cutthroat Teddy hunkered and panted like a trapped mountain cat. Wild-eyed in disbelief, Bonsell stared toward the Ranger, gripping his bloody left hand.
“You’ve—you’ve shot the wrong men, Ranger,” he cried out as Sam stepped away from the boulder and walked toward him, his Winchester hanging in one hand, and his Colt out and cocked, hanging down his right side.
“No, I haven’t,” Sam said confidently, walking closer. “You’re Cutthroat Teddy Bonsell. That’s Jake Cleary. Howdy, Jake.”
Jake Cleary managed to stop groaning long enough to look up and give a stiff nod.
“Howdy, Ranger,” he gasped.
Sam turned back to Bonsell.
“I’ve got both your names on a list here in my pocket, Cutthroat Teddy,” he said. “Want to see it?”
“Hell no!” Bonsell said. “What if this wasn’t us?” he said, holding his bloody hand up for the Ranger to see. “What if you was tracking the wrong men—innocent men?”
Sam didn’t reply. He stooped and untied Bonsell’s sweaty bandanna from around his neck and wrapped it around his bloody shortened fingertips.
“Hold it there,” he said to Bonsell, placing the wounded outlaw’s right hand around the bloody bandanna. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jake Cleary struggle onto his knees and wobble there, clutching his lower belly.
“You okay there, Jake?” he asked over his shoulder.
“I’ll do . . . ,” Jake groaned, examining himself. Cupping his belly with one hand, he felt down his inner thigh past his knee. “Thank goodness,” he said in relief. His voice strengthened. “I thought you put a bullet in my gut rack, but you didn’t. It hit my CSA belt buckle, went down my leg and sliced down the side of my boot well.” He paused, then said, “I’m obliged, Ranger. I mean it.”
Sam stood and kicked Bonsell’s Colt and rifle out of reach. He only nodded in reply.
Watching, Bonsell couldn’t stand it.
“You’re both making me sick!” he spat. “This lawdog ain’t that good with a rifle—nobody is!” He spun a harsh look at Sam. “Are you, lawdog? Tell the truth.”
Sam didn’t answer. He only stared down at Bonsell. He had aimed at Bonsell’s gun belt, but hitting Cleary’s belt buckle was a fluke. He’d aimed at his belly. Yet, Sam knew that the less he told these men about his intentions, the better.
“Speaking of telling the truth, Cutthroat . . . ,” he said, reaching down to help Bonsell to his feet. “You and I are going to talk some about Braxton Kane and his pals—”
“Ha! You won’t have to go looking for Brax, Ranger,” Bonsell sneered, cutting him off. “Soon as he hears you killed his brother Cordy, he’ll come looking for you. Him, the Garlets, Buford Barnes and all the rest.” He started to point his bloody wrapped index finger at Sam before he realized it was missing. “So there’s no need in you talking to me—I’ll tell you nothing!”
Sam just stared at him for a moment. That’s a good start, Sam told himself. Cutthroat Teddy was already giving him names before he even asked. He’d heard of Buford Barnes, knew him to be one of Braxton Kane’s regular gunmen. But the Garlets was a name he’d heard only a couple of times. Were they newcomers to the craft of robbing and killing? Maybe, he supposed, or they could be coming farther west having worn out their welcome somewhere else. Either way, he had their names. Now that he heard from Cutthroat Teddy that they were part of Kane’s Golden Gang, he wanted them. He knew better than to get in too big of a hurry. He would get them all rounded up just like this, one, two and three at a time. The rest of the time he would be tracking them, watching, waiting and being there when the time was right.
“Have it your way, Cutthroat Teddy,” he said quietly, and he nodded toward the horses. “Let’s get on our way.”
Midland Settlement, Arizona Badlands
The Garlets—Foz, Tillman and John—rode into Midland Settlement in the heat of the blazing Arizona sun. John, the eldest, had a long-barreled shotgun standing propped up on his thigh. A long dusty beard hung to the middle of a faded bib-front shirt. The high crown of his hat had long fallen victim to the harsh desert heat and lay flattened down one side of his head. Tillman, the middle brother, also wore a faded blue bib-front shirt. Over his shirt he wore a ragged long riding duster. His headwear, a roomy frayed bowler held down by a strip of rawhide, rocked back and forth with each step on his big buckskin barb. A big Colt Dragon stood in a saddle holster above his right knee.
On Tillman’s right, Foz Garlet, the youngest, sat atop a surly head-tossing blaze-faced roan that appeared on the verge of bolting out from under him. John tossed his younger brother and his horse a disdainful look.
“Settle that flea-bitten cayuse before I bend a pistol barrel between his eyes,” he warned.
“I don’t know what in the devil’s hell has gotten into him,” said Foz, not about to take such a warning without reply. “But I expect any pistol barrel that gets bent on my horse’s head will come from my hand and no other.” He gave a tough, broken-toothed grin and patted the ornery roan’s withers. “Ain’t that right, ole buzzard-bait?” he said to the horse. “Yes sir, that’s right,” he said, speaking in a gravely mock tone that was meant to be the horse answering him.
John and Tillman looked at each other and shook their heads, riding on.
“You’ve never been worth a damn with horses, truth be told, little brother,” said John, the three of them steering their horses over to a long, iron hitch rail outside a weathered plank-and-timber saloon.
“Is this going to be a day full of your opinions?” Foz asked flatly, stopping his horse between his brothers and swinging down from his saddle. His brothers slid down and the three men tied their reins. “If it is I need to get as drunk as I can as fast as I can and stay there until you run out of sour wind.” He slid a rifle up from his boot, then seeing the look on both his brothers’ faces, he caught himself, stopped and slid the rifle back down.
“A drink or two, fine, but this is not a day for getting slack-jawed drunk,” John whispered. “Remember our plan. Like always we’re going to play it real quiet and sly. Nobody’s going to know why we’re here, until we’re done and gone.”
“I know that,” Foz whispered in reply. “Sly and quiet, just like always.”
The brothers nodded in agreement and stood among their horses for a moment and gazed off along the dusty street toward the new Midland Bank building, still under construction. John gave the other two a coy smile and lowered his tone.
“There she is, boys,” he whispered.
“Damned if she ain’t,” said Tillman. “I’ll drink to banks and all that’s in them.”
John dusted his long beard with both hands and slipped his shotgun into his bedroll behind his saddle.
“You and me both,” he said, stepping from between the horses, Tillman right behind him.
Foz looked back and forth along the street, and then he stepped out, following his brothers onto a short plank boardwalk. The three walked single file across the boardwalk to the open door of the saloon. They stepped through a waft of stale beer, whiskey and cigar smoke and walked to a long bar where a row of drinkers readjusted and made room for them.
“What’ll it be, fellows?” asked a short, stoop-shouldered bartender wearing a sweat-soaked white shirt. A black ribbon-style necktie hung wet against his chest. He wiped the bar top in front of the three men as he spoke. “I’ve got Saint Louis whiskey, Pilgrim beer and an oversupply of loaded mescal made by a fellow right across the border. He is now deceased. Some say he was hacked to pieces by the very ones who harvested his agave for him. Others say he drank his mescal and kilt himself flat out.”
The Garlets showed no interest in the mescal maker’s tragic misfortune.
“Oversupply meaning it’s cheap?” John inquired with a straightforward stare. “Cheap meaning nobody’s buying it?”
“I prefer to say adequately priced,” said the bartender, “since there’ll be no more of it coming from this distiller’s hands. As far as folks buying it, some do. But I caution them to only take a short sip, then let it alone for a while. Too much at once . . . whew! It’s hard on a man.”
“Either hacked to death or killed himself you say?” said John, only now taking an interest in the distiller’s fate.
“Those are the two more reliable stories,” the barkeep said with slight shrug. “There’re others, but they get more sad and gruesome I’m afraid. One says he cut his own tongue out, but I find that a little far-fetched.” His face beamed with a smile.
“You’re a hell of salesman,” said John with a mocking grin.
“Take serious note, please,” the bartender said, his smile fading, “This is a special, powerful brew. Very, very powerful. I’d be an odious fool not to warn folks.”
Standing near the three brothers, a grizzled prospector spat a stream on tobacco into a brass spittoon.
“Special, ha . . . Don’t let Eland here josh you,” he said with a sidelong glance at John. “Every Mex who can swing a machete makes mescal this time of year. The only difference is what they put in it.”
The short bartender, Eland Fehrs, cocked his bald head toward the dusty old prospector.
“I’ll advise you to keep your nose out of other people’s conversations, Old Time,” he snapped. “I’m trying to tell these men about this loaded mescal. I will sell it to no man unawares.”
The prospector grunted and looked away.
“Well, now that you’ve scared us all to death,” John Garlet said with sarcasm, “pull some up, we’ll see how strong it is. I can’t resist anything that would get a man hacked to pieces or make him kill himself. If it won’t stagger a bull ram, we don’t want to waste our time with it.” He dropped a gold coin on the bar top.
“Oh, it’s strong,” the bartender cautioned, “very strong, meant to be sipped slowly, like I said, over a long period of time.” He pulled a clay jug from under the bar and jerked out a small rag and a short stick that held it corked. “I don’t recommend it to just anybody who comes along. The deceased was known for his liberal use of red peppers, ground peyote buttons and cocaine to give it both body and a visual experience that—”
“Do you talk this much all the damned time?” asked Tillman, cutting the bartender short. “I’m starting to think you’re out of mescal.”
“My apologies,” the bartender said meekly. He set three wooden cups on the bar, filled them from the jug and started to remove the jug. But John grabbed his wrist.
“Leave it,” he said.
The bartender gave him a wary look. But upon seeing it would do no good to argue, he swiped up the gold coin and left the jug sitting.
“If you have any questions, feel free to summon me,” he said, moving away down the bar.
“Lord!” said Tillman, “I thought he wouldn’t shut up until we all three got saved.” He raised the jug and took a long swig while the other two held their wooden cups out to be filled.
“What about us, Brother Till?” Foz said coolly.
Tillman let out a blast of hot breath and spoke in a strained voice as he set the jug down atop the bar.
“It ain’t weak . . . I’ll give it that,” he said, his voice shutting down on him even as he spoke. He patted the clay jug; his face glowed a boiling bright red. A sliver of steam curled atop the open jug.
“Maybe we should have heard the bartender out,” said Foz staring at the jug. “I’ve heard of this stuff but I’ve never drank any.”
“How strong can it be?” said John, lifting the jug and filling the cups.
The prospector, Casey “Old Time” Stans, turned sidelong to them again, overhearing their words.
“It ain’t so much how strong it is, as how blind-staggering wild-eyed loco it makes a man, real prontolike,” he said. He watched the three drink from their wooden cups and let out a rasping hiss. “It’s fast, awfully fast,” he added. “You almost need to hold on to something when you drink it. I believe that’s what Eland would’ve said once he finally got around to it.”
“You ask me, he’s just too mouthy to work a bar,” Tillman said, raising his cup for another sip. “We come from Kaintuck and Tennessee stock. We don’t need telling how or what to drink.” He tipped his cup toward his brothers. The three drank.
“There ain’t nothing under cork that’s too strong for a Garlet to muzzle up to,” said John. His voice had already started to take on extra effort. He took another, deeper drink as if to prove his point. “Whoooiee,” he shouted. “Boys, if this makes me want to kill myself, hand me a rope I’m ready to die!”
“Again,” said the prospector amid the laughter, “not wishing to belabor the matter. It’s not the kind of strong a man gets from whiskey. It’s different. If you’ve got business that needs doing you need to get it done first, is all I’m saying. You don’t want to—”
“You going to start now?” Foz interrupted with a shiny stare. His cheeks were rosy red. “See . . . I’m starting to understand how a man would drink this and want to chop some fool to pieces.” He glanced around as if searching for a machete.
“No sir, I’m not going to start in,” said the prospector, “and I beg your pardon. But as one man to another, I have to give warning. The first, and only, time I ever drank it I lost the use of this eye for near a month.” He tapped a finger to his left eye. “I could not stand the smell of live chickens, linen, cotton or spun wool going on six weeks.” He gave a slight shrug. “There. That said, I wish the three of you nothing but the best.”
“No offense, prospector, and I am not a doctor,” Tillman said with a slight chuckle, “but it sounds like maybe your eye was a bit on the wane to begin with.” He slid the jug to the prospector and nodded at it. “If you want to jump back in the saddle, have at it. If you go wild-eyed blind we’ll lead you out of here and set you the right direction.”
The old prospector tho
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...