A new Western adventure from the USA Today best-selling author of Golden Riders.
A town on the edge.
When Arizona Ranger Sam Burrack arrives in Mesa Grande with a few outlaws in tow, he finds the town in chaos. The sheriff's just been shot, and the new deputy - supposedly out in search of the gunman - is acting suspicious. Now it's up to Burrack to sort out who can be trusted and who needs to be put behind bars. But just as he starts putting the pieces together, a new kind of threat descends on Mesa Grande: Scalp hunters ride in - with a band of wrathful Apache warriors hot on their trail.
Release date: January 6, 2015
Print pages: 304
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Nothing had moved down on the sand flats for over an hour. But that didn’t make Arizona Territory Ranger Sam Burrack trust this scorched stretch of badlands any more than he would trust a sleeping rattlesnake. The men he’d been following had ridden out onto a stone shelf covered with dried mesquite and spiky cactus and disappeared. Only two things they could have done, the Ranger reasoned to himself. They could have abandoned their horses and climbed down a steep hundred feet of broken rock, or they could have lain down and taken cover, hoping he’d either give up the hunt or come riding in blindly.
Not likely they would leave their horses, though, he further deduced—not with only one man tracking them, not up here in Apache country. These two didn’t spook that easy. They were there, lying in wait for him. He was certain of it.
He squinted and looked all around the terrain from under the brim of his lowered sombrero. Midmorning sunlight blazed white and sharp above him. His black-point copper dun stood with its head poked inside the thin shade of an upreaching saguaro cactus twenty feet away. This was a waiting game, he reminded himself, no two ways about it. Sooner or later the desert would force him or the two outlaws to make a move.
That’s how it works. So be it. . . .
He scooted back and stood without stirring up any dust. He stepped over to the dun, loosened its reins from the saguaro and led it over into the fuller shade of the boulder. Keeping an eye on the stone shelf, he took the canteen from his saddle horn, poured a few drops of tepid water onto his palm and pressed it to the dun’s muzzle.
The dun took the water, licking at his palm and butting his hand when it realized his palm had gone empty.
“Easy, Copper,” he whispered, and he patted the horse’s warm neck. “This won’t last much longer.”
He sat down quietly in the sand and relaxed there for almost another hour, sided against the large boulder, his Winchester across his lap. He stiffened and laid his thumb over the rifle hammer when he heard a voice suddenly call out from the stone shelf.
“You over there,” the voice said. “What say we call this thing a draw and we all go our way?”
Sam didn’t reply. If this was an attempt to find out if he was still here, answering would remove any doubt. He sat listening, hoping the dun wouldn’t make any sound that might give him away.
“Did you hear me over there?” the voice called out, not sounding any closer. Not yet anyway. But that would come once these two got tired of standing in silence in the scalding desert sun. “We know you were following us. . . . We saw your dust. So you just as well admit up to it.”
Sam listened and leaned back against the boulder. He would know when the two stepped into sight.
“See? We’re businessmen out of New Mexico, the two of us,” the voice said. “I’m Halberd Tacker. This is Ernst Yunt. We figure you to be a highwayman, out to rob us—not that we are carrying anything of any great value. Being just honest businessmen, we worry about that sort of thing all the time. Things being as they are.”
The Ranger almost smiled to himself. He kept silent. Waited. Listened. He heard the sound of their horses’ shoes clack on the sand-dusted stone shelf.
Any minute now. . . .
He cocked the rifle hammer too quietly to be heard. The copper dun stood looking down at him as if knowing what was afoot.
“The thing is,” a second voice called out, “we’re willing to pay you something for allowing us to pass through here unharmed. That’s how things are done, ain’t it?” the voice asked innocently. “You tell us—we don’t know.”
Only the sound of a passing wind whirred through the rock passes, echoing through the shelf as if it carried the voices of mournful spirits.
Finally the Ranger heard the second voice say in a half whisper, “Hell, he’s gone, Rollo. I ain’t standing here all day like some damn fool talking to the wind.”
“Jesus, Cero, use my name, why don’t you?” the first voice said, sounding put out by his companion.
“I’m telling you it doesn’t matter,” said the second voice, a voice the Ranger now realized belonged to Cero Atwater, an outlaw he’d come to know over the past year. “Whoever it was is gone, unless he’s some sun-struck idiot.”
The first voice, belonging to Rollo Parker, cursed and grumbled under his breath.
“You’d better hope you’re right, Cero,” he said. “If we get jumped, I am holding you accountable.”
The Ranger stood up silently, slowly, his back against the boulder and listened as boot steps and horses’ hooves moved closer.
“Accountable, hell,” Cero said, sneering, the two of them leading their horses on the narrow sandy path around the edge of the boulder. “If there was anybody up here, don’t you suppose we’d’ve known by now?”
Here we go, the Ranger said to himself, his rifle in both hands, braced, ready. He saw the toe of the boot nearest him reach into sight.Now!
“It makes no sense to me,” Rollo Parker said. “That man would track you this far, then not be here when—” His breath cut short and exploded from his lungs as the Ranger’s rifle butt smacked him hard in the sternum. “He-eeeg,” he expelled painfully as he dropped to his knees, bent double at the waist and resting his forehead on the dirt. “Heeeg!”
Seeing his partner go down, Cero Atwater tried to make a move. His hand snatched at the butt of a Colt holstered on his hip. But as it came up, the Ranger’s rifle butt swung hard again. Cero bellowed as the rifle cracked against his gun hand, sending the Colt flying away and causing the gunman to fall to his knees beside his cohort. As the gunman tried to struggle up from his knees, Sam swung the rifle butt again and clipped him across his jaw. Atwater collapsed backward, his legs folded back under him like some broken marionette.
There, now. . . .
Sam kept the two covered with his rifle. But after a moment, realizing that Atwater was knocked cold and Parker was having a hard time catching his breath, he stepped forward and raised Parker by his collar.
Parker gasped again as he straightened onto his knees. His hat brim stood flattened up in front; dirt clung to his forehead. He gripped his chest with both hands and continued making hoarse guttural sounds.
“Breathe deep, Parker,” Sam coaxed, holding him up by his collar. “That’s it. Draw some air in.” As he spoke, he leaned his rifle against the boulder, reached down and took Parker’s Remington revolver from its holster. He shoved the gun down into his waistband, then picked his rifle up. Seeing the outlaw gaining his balance on his knees, Sam stepped back and looked down at him.
“You all right?” Sam asked. A few yards back, the two outlaws’ horses stood watching, only having spooked a little when the Ranger sprang out and made his play.
Parker wheezed and gasped, his hands still tight on his chest where his ribs met.
“I’ll . . . do,” he said weakly, his voice coming out as if being squeezed through a small funnel. Then he added with a trace of sarcasm, “Thanks . . . for asking.”
Sam only nodded.
“Wipe your face,” he said, gesturing his rifle barrel at Parker’s watering eyes, the string of saliva bobbing from his chin.
Parker lifted one hand from his sternum and wiped his face with his bandanna.
Sam stood watching quietly, letting the outlaw collect himself a little. Parker looked around at Cero Atwater lying limp and still in the dirt beside him.
“Is he . . . dead?” Parker managed to say, his face still bluish red, his eyes swirly and running.
“I don’t think so,” Sam said. “But he went out awfully easy for a man his size.” He looked closer at the knocked-out gunman. A fly circled down out of nowhere and walked around the edge of Atwater’s ear. Atwater didn’t move.
“Can I—? Can I check . . . and see?” Parker asked, still struggling for air. Without waiting for the Ranger to answer, he turned and leaned in close to Atwater. Sam’s rifle barrel poked in between the two and guided Parker back from his unconscious friend.
“I’ll check him,” he said. He stepped in and pulled the folded outlaw forward onto his limp knees. Atwater managed a short groan. Sam turned him loose. Released, the outlaw flopped back into the same position and dust billowed around him, but before he hit the ground, Sam jerked a small derringer up from behind Atwater’s gun belt. He gave Rollo Parker a dark look as he stepped back and shoved the little gun down into his vest pocket.
“Is this how’s it’s going to be with you?” he asked.
“I didn’t know . . . it was there, Ranger,” Parker said. “I swear I didn’t.” He flinched and held his free hand out as if to ward off another blow from the Ranger’s Winchester.
“I’m not going to hit you, Parker,” Sam said. “But if you go for a gun, knife, anything at all, I will put a bullet in you. You’ve got my word on that.”
“All right, all right!” said Parker, his hand still raised protectively. “We’ve run our . . . string out with you, Ranger. “We’re not going to try nothing. Right, Cero?” His breath was coming back to him. He tossed a sidelong look at his knocked-out partner. Atwater still lay sprawled and limp, his half-crossed eyes staring off into the sunlight. “Well . . . ,” Parker said with exasperation, “if he could talk . . . he’d tell you the same thing. We’re played out here.”
“Good,” said Sam. He stepped back, took his canteen from his saddle horn and stepped forward. He uncapped the canteen and poured a short trickle of water onto Atwater’s face. Nothing. Then he stooped and reached over and adjusted the outlaw’s hat brim down over his brow to keep his eyes out of the sun. While Parker watched, Sam took a pair of handcuffs from behind his back and snapped them onto Atwater’s wrists. “Let him sleep while we gather your horses,” he said.
“Where we headed, Ranger?” Parker asked, pushing himself to his feet, holding out his wrists.
“First stop, Mesa Grande,” said the Ranger, closing another pair of cuffs around Parker’s wrists.
“Mesa Grande’s a far ride from here, Ranger,” Parker commented, staring at his cuffed hands.
“It is at that,” Sam said. He gave a thin, wry smile. “But it’ll give us a chance to talk some. Maybe you can think of something I might want to know—something that might get you and your partner here a shorter sentence once I tell the judge about it.”
“Hey, I don’t jackpot nobody, Ranger,” Parker said, as if a bad taste had just come to his mouth.
“Suit yourself, Parker,” Sam said quietly.
“I sure as hell will,” said the outlaw. “I’d rot a hundred years in Yuma Prison before I’d gullet-up on a trail mate. The judge can kiss my saddle-burnt behind.”
“Hmmm. Kiss your saddle-burnt behind . . . ,” Sam repeated as if committing the words to memory. “Right before his gavel falls I’ll tell him you said that,” he said coolly. “He’ll likely appreciate your being so bold and direct. It’s not always that a man comes before the bench with a—”
“Now, wait a minute, Ranger . . . Jesus!” said Parker, cutting him off. “There’s no cause in you saying something just to make the judge break ugly on us. Me and Cero here are likely enough to get the short end of the stick as it is. This being the first time either one of us has been caught.”
“If this is all new to you,” Sam said, “let me tell you that anything you say to me will be told to the judge.” He stared at Parker. “You might want to weigh your words, even show some cooperation.”
“Let me get this straight . . . ,” Parker said, appearing to have a hard time understanding. “You’re saying that anything I say to you is going to be held agin me in court?”
“Yep, that’s how it works,” Sam said.
“Hell, that’s not fair!” said Parker. “What kind of fool law is that? What about freedom of speech? What about me being free to say anything I want to any time I want to say it? This judge sounds like a crooked rotten son o—”
“Easy, Rollo Parker,” said the Ranger, stopping him in the middle of his rant. “Didn’t you hear me? Everything you’re saying right now I’ll be telling the judge.”
Parker stopped and stared, stunned. After a tense pause he let out a breath.
“All right, listen, Ranger,” he said. “What say we wipe the tabletop clean and start all over?” As he spoke he made a circular motion with his cuffed hands wiping his words from the air. “I know I said some things I never should have said. Let’s just forget I said anything. Can we do that?”
“That all depends,” Sam said. “Let’s see how well we all get along on the trail.”
“Yes, let’s do that, please,” said Parker. “You know all me and Cero did was sell some horses to the wrong caliber of men and deliver them at a time when those men were off robbing a store.”
“Sounds innocent enough,” Sam said wryly. “Now, that’s the way you want the judge to hear it.”
“Think so?” said Parker, weighing it in his mind.
“I know so,” Sam said. “He’ll see that what you did was provide fresh getaway horses. But he’ll consider your version of it.”
“Are you joshing me, Ranger?” Parker asked.
“No,” Sam said. “But in the end I think you two will most likely winter in Yuma, learn some masonry skills there.”
“Busting rocks,” Parker mumbled to himself. “Damn it to hell.”
Mesa Grande, Arizona Territory
Sheriff David “Bronco Dave” Winters worked the ramrod on the barrel of his cap-and-ball Army Colt and seated the final lead ball into the cylinder. Once the gun was loaded, he kept its hammer at half-cock and shoved a fingertip of pasty cornmeal batter down over the front opening of each chamber. The cornmeal paste, once dried, served to keep a loose spark from igniting all the other chambers at once, causing a dangerous chain fire and making the gun blow up in his hand. With the ball of his thumb he pressed a firing cap onto each of the gun’s six iron nipples.
This being the seventh cylinder he’d loaded, he left the cap in the gun, spun it and lowered the gun’s hammer between two chambers for safety. Then he laid the big gun aside. Hearing a dark chuckle coming from an occupied jail cell, he looked up and saw the bushy-headed prisoner, Sherman Geary, standing with his hands wrapped around the bars, grinning at him. Geary’s eyes looked huge behind a pair of thick eye- glasses.
“Holy Joe and Mary, Sheriff,” Geary said. “That’s forty-two shots you’ve made up. Are you expecting a war to break out in Mesa Grande? Who are you scared of?”
Sheriff Winters eyed the prisoner, his bruised forehead, his swollen right jaw. Then he turned his gaze to his battered desk. Six extra cylinders he’d just finished loading stood shiny and black, with the same dab of cornmeal batter drying in their chambers.
Scared? Ha. . . .
“There’s a saying, Sherman,” the sheriff said. “‘I’d rather have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.’”
“Yeah? Well, here’s another saying for you, Bronco Dave,” said Geary, taking on a darker tone. “‘Let a man out of his cell, and he’ll whop you worse than you’ve ever been whopped in your life.’”
“Never heard that one,” the sheriff said, going along with him.
“You’ve heard it now,” said Geary. “Let me out, I’ll show you how an ass-whopping works.” His eyes loomed large and swirly.
The sheriff gave a half smile and shook his head.
“Sherman, Sherman,” he said in a patient tone. “If I had a dollar for every time you got drunk and tried to whop me, I wouldn’t need this job.” He paused and then said with a level gaze, “How’s the welt across the back of your head coming along?”
Geary’s hand went to the back of his sore head. “You never hurt me none, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“That’s too bad,” said the sheriff. “I’ll remind myself to swing a little harder next time.”
Seeing the sheriff start to stand up from his desk to go make his rounds, Geary shook his cell bars with both hands.
“Come on, let me out of here. I’m sober now. Look at me,” he said.
“I don’t have to look. I can tell when you’re sober,” the sheriff said. “When you stop talking about fighting me, you’ll be sober. Right now you’re still drunk. I don’t want you falling off your horse and breaking your neck on the way home.”
“Damn it,” Geary grumbled, turning away from the bars. “I swear to God, if I don’t whop you senseless, there ain’t a dog in Georgia.”
The sheriff just shook his head, use to it.
On the corner of his desk lay a rawhide bandoleer with six empty compartments for the extra cylinders he’d loaded. He picked up each cylinder one at a time, inspected it and placed it into its respective compartment and closed the flap and snapped it shut.
There. . . .
He hefted the bandoleer on his hand, looking at the cylinders. If he found himself needing a fast reload, here they were, loaded, capped, ready to fire. He would unpin the barrel from the gun’s frame, slide off the empty smoking cylinder, slide on a loaded one, replace the barrel, set the pin and be back in the fight. He could do the whole thing in less than thirty seconds if he had to. Twice in his life he’d had to, he reminded himself. He caught a glimpse of those times, dead men, both white and Apache lying all around him, the battle still raging . . .
He hoped he’d never have to again, he told himself, rising from the chair. He picked up the Colt lying on his desk and holstered it before he carried the heavy bandoleer to the gun rack and hung it from a peg.
“Geary, can you eat something?” he asked the prisoner. “It might help sober you up.”
The prisoner didn’t answer. Instead he cursed and flopped down onto his cot.
“You need to send that ol’ smoke wagon to the Colt factory,” he called out to Winters. “They’ll convert it to a modern-day gun for you for seven dollars—send you a box of bullets to boot. No real lawman carries a cap-and-ball. It’s an embarrassment. Makes you look like from the days of—”
“Suit yourself,” said Winters, cutting Geary short. “I’ll bring you some food anyway, if your jaw’s not too sore to chew.”
“Don’t worry about my jaw,” Geary snapped back. “Worry about your own when I get out of here.”
Sheriff Winters stepped away from the gun rack and picked up the loaded repeater rifle leaning against his battered desk.
“Any fool needing forty-two pistol shots is in worse trouble than he knows,” Geary called out.
“You might be right about that, Sherman,” the sheriff replied, levering a round into the rifle chamber. He smiled thinly. “But that’s why God made the Winchester.” He added a warning. “Don’t be smoking while I’m gone, Sherman. Town can’t afford to build a new jail. I’d hate to throw you in the smokehouse next time you get your bark on.”
Geary didn’t answer.
With the rifle hanging in his left hand, Winters took his Stetson and the cell key from a peg beside the door. He snapped the large brass key ring at his waist, placed the Stetson atop his head, adjusting the hat brim to the time of day, and opened the door into a white glare of sunlight. But before he could close the door behind himself, a bullet slammed into his chest, flinging him backward into his office and over the top of his desk.
His rifle flew from his hand; he left a bloody smear across the desk, clearing it of paperwork and incidentals, and landed broken and unconscious against a row of cell bars as the sound of the shot echoed along the street.
“Lord God!” Geary shouted. Springing up from his cot, he leaped over to where the sheriff lay sprawled. He adjusted his glasses quickly as if not believing his eyes. Flattened down on the floor lest another shot ring out, he reached through the bars and shook the downed sheriff by his shoulders.
“Sheriff! Wake up!” he shouted. Rolling the sheriff onto his side, Geary saw the gaping hole in his chest, the pool of blood forming and spreading on the dusty floor beneath him. “Don’t you die, Sheriff, damn it! Don’t you die!” he shouted, seeing frothy blood rise and fall in the sheriff’s open lips.
“Hel—help me . . . ,” the sheriff murmured in a waning whisper.
Help you . . . ? Geary looked at the blood pouring from the sheriff’s chest. Then he shot a glance toward the open door, seeing people gathering in the street and looking all around.
“Lie still, Sheriff,” he said, even though the wounded lawman wasn’t moving. Geary ran his right arm through the bars and took the cell key from the sheriff’s belt. “I’m out of here sooner than you thought.”
In an alleyway across the street from the sheriff’s office, two gunmen stood staring out from behind a stack of empty shipping crates. Erskine Cord, the one holding the fifty-six-caliber Pryse & Redman custom English rifle, gave a short chuckle as he and his younger nephew, Ozbourne Cord, watched the stunned faces of the townsfolk who stood looking all around in the wake of the loud rifle shot. Doors trembled; windowpanes shuddered in their frames.
“They’re a bunch of sheep, Ozzie,” said Erskine Cord. He spat and hefted the smoking double rifle in his hands. “I could shoot a half dozen more before they ever figured where we are.”
“I’m game for it,” said Ozzie, sounding excited at the prospect of watching any number of people fall broken and dead in the dusty street. He grinned and fanned his hat back and forth and put it back atop his head. “Give me the gun and some cartridges, Uncle Erskine. I’ll shoot a few.” He reached for the smoking big game rifle. But Cord pulled the rifle away and gave him a look.
“I don’t kill for the fun of it,” Cord admonished, his grin suddenly replaced by a somber stare. “Only a sick-headed fool kills for free. He looked his younger partner up and down with a disdainful stare. “Do you understand that?”
Ozzie turned somber too, looking a little embarrassed.
“Yes, I do understand, Uncle Erskine,” he said. “I just figured, if you meant it, I’d go right along with it, just for practice so to speak—”
“Good. Now we understand each other,” said Cord. He handed the young man the rifle. “Here, you can carry it all the way back to camp. Mind you don’t get it wet crossing the creek.”
“I won’t get it wet, Uncle Erskine,” Ozzie said, taking the big rifle and holding it to his chest. “I’ll hold it over my head when we cross.”
“All right, let’s split up and get out of here,” Cord said. “I’ll meet you at the camp.” He nodded back toward the street. “Curland will be showing up here any minute to save the day.” He glanced toward the street that was now filling with townsfolk. “Just between us, Curland makes me want to puke—likes his men to call him Mr. C.” He saw three men running through the open door of the sheriff’s office. He gave a sigh. “But he’s the customer—the man with the money.”
“Yep,” said Ozzie, “‘the man with the money,’” he parroted. “You explained all that to me.”
“Too bad somebody don’t want Curland killed too,” said Erskine Cord. “I’d give them a half-price special.” He gave a dark half grin.
The two turned and walked away along the alley to a telegraph pole where they had hitched their horses. Once mounted, they rode away in different directions. On the street the gathered people turned their eyes to the sheriff’s office as a carpenter by the name of Harold Flake reappeared at the open doorway and stood shouting, waving his hands.
“The sheriff’s been shot! Somebody get the doctor, quick!” he shouted.
“Is he alive?” a voice called out from the street.
“I don’t know . . . just barely, I think,” Flake shouted, seeing two townsmen already running along the street toward the doctor’s office a block away. “For God sakes, hurry up! He’s bleeding something awful!”
Sheriff Winters faintly heard Flake’s voice.
“I’m not dead . . . ,” Winters managed to whisper in a weak raspy voice.
“You will be, though, if you don’t shut up and lie still,” Sherman Geary said, pressing his wadded-up blood-soaked shirt down on the sheriff’s open chest wound.
Kneeling beside Geary, a teamster, Ison Prine, pushed both palms down atop Geary’s bloody hands.
“I’ll help you,” he said.
But the quarrelsome Geary would have none of it.
“Help how, by mashing him into the floor?” he barked.
He butted his head against the teamster’s shoulder, getting him to back off. He kept his hands pressed firm on the sheriff’s chest.
“You’re still drunk, I see,” Prine observed.
Geary shot him a cold, hard stare through his blood-smeared lenses.
“I’m only trying to help you,” Prine said meekly, knowing how wild and violent Geary could get when he had even the smallest amount of whiskey in him.
“You can help by getting the hell away from me and keeping your loud mouth shut, Ison!” he shouted. “Where the hell’s Doc Young anyway?”
Prine looked at the open cell door, the key still in it. He looked Geary up and down, Geary shirtless, covered with blood to his elbows, his face and chest blood-splattered and dripping from before he’d gotten the flow under control. His thick eyeglasses were blood-smeared from where he’d wiped them on his bare shoulder to clear them. He leaned on his hands, pressing his shirt down on the wound as firmly as he dared.
“Jesus, Sherman,” said Prine. “He’s lucky you was here, else he would already bled to death.”
“Yeah, real lucky,” Geary said with stewing sarcasm, staying the flow of blood on Sheriff Winters’ chest. “You want to do something, damn it? Take these glasses off me and wipe the blood off. I can’t see shit.” He cocked his head toward the teamster and let him remove the eyeglasses. Then he looked around over his shoulder toward the open front door, batting his weak eyes. “Flake? Where the hell is Doc Young?”
“Here he comes,” said Flake, backing away from the doorway as he waved the running doctor toward the office. “Hurry on, Doc,” he shouted. “He’s in an awful way!”
On the floor, the sheriff opened his eyes slowly and gazed up at Sherman Geary, seeing that Geary held his bloody hands down firm against his chest wound.
“Hang on, Winters,” said Geary. “Doc Young is here.”
Other townsmen came into the office right behind the doctor. They gathered around and watched as the doctor dropped onto his knees and slung open his medical bag. He quickly stripped off his wrinkled linen coat and rolled up his sleeves, all the while looking closely at the downed sheriff
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