Payback at Big Silver
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From the USA Today bestselling author of Showdown at Gun Hill comes a tale of outlaws and order in the Old West.
A FATHER'S FURY
Arizona Territory Ranger Sam Burrack knows all too well that criminals don't concern themselves with consequences. So it's no surprise to him when Big Silver's Sheriff Sheppard Stone makes an enemy of wealthy cattle rancher Edsel Centrila, whose son thinks he's above the law. After Stone refuses a large payoff to let Centrila's son out of jail, Centrila throws all of his money into buying up Big Silver, putting gunmen on every corner, aiming right at the sheriff's office. As Burrack traverses the Badlands, he becomes a target because of his association with Stone. Now, he must head back to Big Silver to help watch Stone's back. But it won't be easy. Centrila won't stop until his son is free, and Burrack won't stop until justice is served...
Release date: October 6, 2015
Print pages: 304
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Payback at Big Silver
“You’re not making me one damn bit nervous, Ranger,” Ferry said. His face reddened; he took two short threatening steps forward and stood glaring at the Ranger. “Without your element of surprise, you ain’t so damn—”
Arizona Territory Ranger Sam Burrack sat waiting midtrail atop his copper-colored dun. Both man and animal stood perfectly still, statuelike in the crisp silver dawn. Their senses searched the silence along the winding trail leading off and upward along the rocky hills. A sliver of steam curled in the dun’s nostrils. The Ranger rested the butt of his Winchester rifle on his thigh, cocked and ready, its barrel pointing skyward. He’d removed his trail gloves and stuck them down behind his gun belt. He held his hand in a firing grip around the small of the rifle stock, his finger outside the trigger guard, resting along the cold metal gun chamber.
When the dun’s ears pricked slightly toward the trail, the Ranger gave a trace of a smile and rubbed the horse’s withers.
Not much longer. . . .
The men he lay in wait for had robbed a mine payroll the day before—in fact, had robbed two other payrolls over the past week. As the sound of horses’ hooves overtook the morning silence, Sam wrapped his reins loosely around the dun’s saddle horn, stepped down from the saddle and nudged the dun on its rump. The horse moved away behind the cover of a tall rock as if trained to do so. Sam shifted his rifle to his left hand, drew his Colt and held it cocked down his right side. Looking up along the trail, he counted four horsemen riding down, dust roiling behind their horses’ hooves.
Riding into sight, the first horseman swung his horse quarterwise to the Ranger and jerked it to a halt.
“Whoa, boys!” he called out to the others, caught by surprise at seeing the Ranger standing there, alone, armed, looking as if he might have been there all night, waiting.
Sam stood staring calmly, his duster open down the front showing his badge should anyone be interested in seeing it.
“How the hell did you get around us, Ranger?” the first rider, a seasoned Missourian gunman named Bern Able, called out. As he spoke the other three jerked their horses to a halt. They instinctively formed a half circle on the narrow trail.
“Simple,” Sam said coolly. “You stopped. I kept riding.”
“I’ll be damned. . . .” Able gave a stiff grin through a long unattended mustache. He looked all around the hill lines encircling them as if to see what route the Ranger had taken. “And that’s all there was to it?” His hand rested on the butt of a Remington conversion strapped across his belly in a cross-draw holster. “I’ll have to remember that.”
The Ranger stood with his feet spread in a fighting stance, his riding duster spread open down the front, his battered gray sombrero brim tilted down a little on his forehead—Sonora-style—against the glare of rising sunlight in the east.
“I’ll be taking that money now, Able,” he said with resolve. He nodded at the bulging canvas bag hanging from the saddle horn of Able’s pale speckled barb.
“Taking’s what you’ll have to do,” said a younger Tex-Mexican outlaw named Brandon Suarez. His right hand rested on a holstered black-handled Colt with an eagle etched on its grip.
Sam only gave him a throwaway glance as if it went without saying that he would take the money. Then he looked back at Able, who still sat grinning, yet tensed, poised.
“Hush up, Brandon, we’re talking here,” Able said sidelong to Suarez without taking his eyes off the Ranger. “But he’s right, you know,” he said to Sam. “I’ve never understood why you lawmen think a man will risk his life, get his hands on some hard-earned money and just turn around and give it all up to you.” He shook his head in disgust. “I’d like to hear just how you see any fairness in it.” He fixed a hard, sharp gaze on the Ranger.
“Yeah, me too,” said Suarez.
“It would require a lot of explaining,” Sam said quietly, almost patiently. “That’s not why I’m here.” As he spoke his cocked Colt came up causally in an unthreatening manner and leveled at Able’s chest, twenty feet away. He slid a glance over the other two, a young but well-seasoned Wyoming cattle thief named Freddie Dobbs and a huge saloon bouncer from Maryland named Armand “Boomer” Phipps. He noted that Dobbs kept his hand well away from his holstered sidearm. Boomer Phipps, owing to his massive size, was not known for carrying a gun.
“Well, ain’t you slicker than pig piss?” said Able. Rather than looking taken aback at how coolly the Ranger had just gotten the upper hand, Able shrugged it off.
The other three just stared, not understanding why Able had allowed that to happen.
“See, Brandon,” he said as if undaunted, “that’s his way of telling you to go to hell—that he don’t give a damn how hard you work, or what-all you go through to get the money. He figures his job is to take it back, make sure it goes to the squareheads who weren’t fit to hang on to it in the first place. Right, Ranger?” He glared at Sam as if enraged by the unfairness of it.
“There you have it,” Sam said with resolve. He saw the slightest clasp of Able’s gun hand on the butt of the big Remington belly gun—the faintest move of his thumb toward the gun hammer.
Sam’s Colt bucked in his right hand before Able brought his belly gun out and up into play. Able flew backward as his blood splattered on Freddie Dobbs. Dobbs’ horse whinnied and reared wildly. Sam fired the Winchester in his left hand, hoping the shot would distract Suarez. It did. The outlaw ducked a little as the rifle shot whistled past him. Before he could straighten and get a shot off, Sam swung his Colt toward him and fired. Suarez fell down the side of his spooked horse, blood spilling from his chest.
Even as his world faded around him, Suarez squeezed off a wild shot. Sam saw the round send Dobbs flying backward out of his saddle. He landed flat on his back. Sam swung the Colt toward Boomer Phipps, who sat unarmed and growling in his saddle like a mad dog.
“Hands in the air, Boomer,” Sam called out. But even as he spoke he had to holster his Colt quickly and grab Able’s speckled barb by its reins as the animal tried to streak past him. He held on to the spooked horse’s reins, his Winchester smoking in his left.
“Who says?” Boomer growled at him. He swung down from his saddle. Moving fast for a man his size, he charged at the Ranger, as if unstoppable. “You’re not going to shoot me. I’ll break your head off!”
Sam knew he needed to lever a fresh round into the rifle chamber, but he had no time. Boomer Phipps charged hard and fast, a massive and deadly force pounding at him like a crazed grizzly. Sam let go of the barb’s reins and drew the rifle far back over his right shoulder with both hands. With all his strength he drove the rifle butt forward into Phipps’ broad forehead. Phipps stopped as if he’d run into a brick wall. The impact of the huge outlaw sent the Ranger flying backward onto his rump.
Instead of going to the ground like any normal-sized man, Phipps staggered backward two steps, caught himself and stood swaying, dazed but still on his feet. Sam came to his feet, levering a round into his rifle, and stood with his feet braced, ready to fire.
“Stay where you are, Boomer,” he warned. “Don’t make me kill you.”
Phipps batted his eyes; he raised his arms and spread his big hands in a wrestling stance.
“You ain’t going to kill me, Ranger,” he said, still dazed. “I’m going to kill you!” He stalked forward a step, then another.
Sam leveled the cocked rifle and aimed it at the outlaw’s broad chest. There was nothing more to say—nothing more to do. Sam started to squeeze the trigger. But before he made the killing shot at a distance of less than thirty feet, Phipps crumbled to his knees, growled aloud and pitched forward onto his chest, finally succumbing to the blow on his forehead. Even still he moaned and slung his big head back and forth, trying to clear it.
Sam lowered the rifle in both hands as Phipps groaned and wallowed in the dirt. Stepping over to the dun, Sam took a pair of handcuffs from his saddlebags and a coil of rope from his saddle horn. Walking back to the downed outlaw, he grabbed the reins to Able’s barb again as the horse stepped nervously around on the narrow trail.
“Don’t make me hit you again, Boomer,” Sam said, stooping down, grabbing the outlaw’s left arm and pulling it back behind him before Phipps knew what was happening.
“I dare . . . you to, law dog!” Phipps growled, sounding groggy and thick-tongued. He reached his other hand around behind him and flailed about for the Ranger. Sam managed to grab the big hand long enough to clasp the cuff around the other wrist.
Phipps, still a little dazed, struggled against the cuffs and wallowed until he managed to rise onto his knees.
“I’ll twist your limbs off!” he shouted at Sam.
Sam stepped back, opened a loop in the rope and swung it down over the big man’s shoulders, drawing it tight around his arms. Before Phipps could react, two more loops swung around him and tightened.
“There, now, Boomer, settle yourself down,” Sam said. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Phipps strained and struggled; Sam heard the rope creak with tension.
“Shoot me, Ranger, I dare you,” he continued to taunt. “You won’t shoot me. You’re afraid to—!”
His words cut short as Sam stepped behind him, placed his right boot between his shoulders and shoved him forward. Phipps landed with a grunt and a solid thud. Sam wrapped three turns of rope around his thick knees and dogged the rope down.
“That ought to do it,” he said quietly. Phipps struggled, but Sam could see he was wearing out.
“What about me . . . over here?” Freddie Dobbs called out in a weak voice. Sam saw him sitting up unsteadily on the ground. Blood ran freely from a bullet hole in his upper shoulder.
“I’m coming, Dobbs,” Sam called out, dusting dirt from his hands. “Keep breathing in and out.”
“That’s . . . real funny,” Dobbs rasped.
Sam helped the big outlaw to his feet and steadied him for a moment. Phipps’ forehead carried a swollen welt the size and shape of the Ranger’s rifle butt. Blood trickled down from the welt and dripped from his nose. Sam tugged on the short length of rope in his hand.
“Let’s go, Boomer,” he said.
The outlaw looked down groggily at his knees with the rope wrapped securely around them. He took a short six-inch step forward, swaying, his huge arms bound against his sides.
“How am I supposed to walk like this?” he asked.
“Real slow,” the Ranger replied flatly.
• • •
An hour passed as Sam dressed Freddie Dobbs’ wounded shoulder with a folded bandanna he took from his saddlebags. He tied the bandanna in place with strips of Dobbs’ shirtsleeve he’d torn off and cut into strips. Dobbs sat with his shirt hanging off his left shoulder. He looked down at the improvised bandaging and shook his head.
“That’s my last shirt,” he said in a sad tone.
“I’ve got worse news than that for you,” Sam said, standing, pouring canteen water onto his cupped hand, then clamping the canteen under his arm and washing his hands together. “The bullet is stuck against a bone inside your shoulder.”
“Jesus,” said Dobbs, “that’s why I can’t bend my arm?” He tried rounding his shoulder a little but stopped in a sharp surge of pain.
“Most likely that’s why,” Sam said. “The bullet has to be cut out.” He looked all around the barren desert hill country as he spoke.
“Can’t you slice right in there, dig it up and pluck it out, Ranger?” Boomer Phipps asked, sitting off to the side listening, his forehead still pounding.
“Slice, dig? Pluck . . . ?” said Dobbs. He looked back and forth between the two, sweat pouring down his forehead. “What the hell am I, some kind of roasting animal?”
Phipps just scowled at him.
“I can cut it out,” Sam said. “But it would be less painful if we took you into town and got it done.” He looked Dobbs up and down. “You decide. But it needs doing quick, keep the fever from setting in.”
“Man oh man. . . .” Dobbs looked worried as he considered the matter and touched his hand carefully against the bloody bandage.
Seeing the look on his troubled face, Sam handed the canteen down to him.
“We’re a day’s ride from Big Silver,” he said. “There’s a doctor there most times.”
“Most times?” said Dobbs, taking the canteen. “I don’t like those odds.”
“Then you should have picked a different game,” Sam said.
Dobbs paused, then said, “Say . . . that’s Sheriff Sheppard Stone’s town.” A slight grin came to his parched lips. “Didn’t I hear he’s a drunk? Heard he’s gone loco, thinks he turns into a wolf or something.”
Sam stared at him. It had been a month now since he rode with Sheriff Stone, and the woman sheriff named Kay Deluna. The three of them had fought a band of outlaws bent on holding a railroad baron named Curtis Siedell hostage.
“I heard some rumors like that myself,” Sam said. “Last I saw Stone he was sober, doing his job like always. Anyway, Big Silver’s where we’re going.”
“I heard about you and Stone riding down Bo Anson,” said Phipps, his hand cupped to his throbbing forehead. “I heard you killed ol’ Bo for no good reason.”
“I killed Bo Anson because he was holding Curtis Siedell for ransom and wouldn’t give him up. There was also a few killings that Bo Anson was not even being charged with.”
“King Curtis Siedell, the ‘baron of the rails,’” said Phipps with a chuff of contempt. “Bo shoulda killed that carpet-bagging son of a bitch—he ought to have gotten a medal for doing it.” He glared at Sam. “But instead, you stopped ol’ Bo’s clock.” He shook his head at the unfairness of it. “There’s a lot of ol’ boys who still hold that against you, in case you don’t know it.”
Sam ignored the comment and stepped over to Phipps.
“I’m going to untie your knees so you can ride, Boomer,” he said.
“What about these?” Phipps said, wiggling his thick fingers to indicate the handcuffs on his wrists.
“I’m leaving the cuffs on and the rope around your arms,” Sam said. “If you try to make a run for it, I’ll yank your lead rope and you’ll hit the ground.”
“Yeah, and?” Phipps said as if not worried about being yanked from atop a running horse.
“And you’ll ride into Big Silver sidesaddle,” Sam warned.
“Sidesaddle . . . ?” Phipps gave him a look of disgust. “I’d sooner die and be dragged in on a rope.”
“Suit yourself,” Sam said coolly. “I’m just presenting your choices. How you arrive in Big Silver is up to you.” He reached down and started loosening the rope around the big outlaw’s knees.
The Sonora Desert, Mexican badlands
“Hector, more whiskey,” Edsel Centrila said over his shoulder to Hector Mendoza. He handed his empty glass back to the middle-aged Mexican house servant.
“Sí, right away,” Hector Mendoza said. He took the whiskey glass and hurried to the office bar to refill it.
Edsel Centrila stood, cigar in hand, at the window of his office looking out across the cattle ranch he’d acquired in a land grant from the Mexican government ten years earlier. In the northeast beyond a line of blackened jagged hills lay the Mexico–United States border. To the west of his spread lay the Sonora Desert, carpeted by sand flats, occupied in perpetuity by meandering hill range and arid rock lands. Within the wavering heat saguaro cactus, tall and treelike, stared back at him with their spiny arms lifted to the white-hot sky as if held at gunpoint.
“Gracias,” he said when the Mexican brought the filled whiskey glass to him. “Send Charlie Knapp to me.”
“Sí, I send him,” the Mexican said. He waited for a second anticipating further orders.
“Then go to the barn and bring a couple of turnaround horses while I meet these two at the rail.” He nodded at two riders galloping out of the heat and white sunlight less than a hundred yards away. He recognized the two dust-covered men as the Cady brothers, Lyle and Ignacio.
“Shall I prepare room in the empty bunkhouse for them?” Hector asked, already turning toward the door.
“No,” said Centrila, “they won’t be staying long.”
As Hector Mendoza left for the barn, Centrila walked out of his office and stood on the wide stone porch of the hacienda, whiskey glass in hand, awaiting the two riders. When the Cady brothers drew closer and reined their horses down to a walk the last thirty yards, Centrila stepped down from the porch and stood at the hitch rail watching them, his right hand on his hip, close to the bone handle of a tall Colt standing in a tooled slim-jim holster.
“Howdy, Mr. Centrila,” said Lyle Cady, raising his hat an inch as he and his brother, Ignacio, stopped their horses ten feet away from the iron hitch rail. The two waited for an invitation before stepping down from their saddles. Their horses sniffed toward a horse trough full of water standing near the hitch rail.
“Howdy,” Centrila said with a growl in his voice. He gave a short jerk of his head toward the water trough and stood watching as the two led their horses over and let them drink.
“I’ll tell you first thing, Mr. Centrila,” said Lyle, letting out a tired breath. “This has been no easy ride for Iggy and me.”
“If you’re expecting to get more money, forget it,” said Centrila. “As long as this has taken, you’re lucky I don’t shoot the both of you.” As he spoke he looked the two up and down, noting the nicks and scars and bruises they had acquired since the last time he saw them. “What the hell happened anyway?” he demanded. “I sent you to get my money back from Sheriff Stone. You come back looking like you’ve been in a gun battle.”
Lyle Cady swallowed a dry knot in his throat when he saw Centrila’s hired gunman, Charlie Knapp, appear around the corner of the hacienda.
“The truth is, we have been in a gun battle. But that ain’t all that’s happened to us,” said Lyle. Beside him, Ignacio Cady turned and watched Knapp closely as his brother spoke. “We found Sheriff Stone like we said we would. He was on the trail with Ranger Burrack.”
“Sam Burrack.” Centrila considered the matter, then said, “All right, go on. Tell me how this caused you to come dragging in here a month late.” He took a deep breath and stood tapping his fingers on his gun butt. “Hadn’t been for the telegraph you sent last week, I’d have figured you collected my money from Stone and took off with it.”
“No, sir, we wouldn’t do that,” Lyle put in quickly. “Like I said in the telegraph, we didn’t get your money. Truth is, Sheriff Stone has gone plumb loco. He gets drunk and thinks he’s a wolf—”
“I don’t give a damn if he thinks he’s the president of the United Sates,” said Centrila, cutting him off. “I gave him money to bribe the judge and keep my son out of prison. Stone crawfished and never gave the money to the judge. My son, Harper, is behind bars, and I want him out.” He glared at the Cady brothers.
“It’s understandable you being upset,” Lyle said meekly. “I only wish I knew some way to—”
“You’re going to get Harper out of prison,” Centrila said, cutting the nervous Cady brother off again. He jerked his head toward Charlie Knapp, who stood watching and listening with a rifle hanging in his left hand. “Charlie’s set it up with some gunmen he knows. You two are going with him.”
“Mr. Centrila,” said Lyle, shaking his head a little, “there’s nothing that would please Iggy and me more than breaking Harper out of prison. But the thing is—”
“Good, I’m glad to hear that,” said Centrila, for the third time cutting him off. “I had already told Charlie to shoot you both if you tried to crawfish on me.” He gave a cruel grin. “You can understand how I feel about crawfishing after the way Sheriff Stone treated our deal.”
Lyle started to offer more on the matter, but Ignacio cut in before he could.
“We understand, sir,” he said, stepping over half between his brother and Centrila. “Breaking Harper out is the least we can do, as good as you’ve treated us. Say the word and we’ll kill Sheppard Stone while we’re at it, that crawfishing son of a bitch.”
“Indeed you will,” said Centrila, as if he’d planned everything before their arrival. He raised his cigar, took a deep draw, then blew gray smoke upward in a thin stream.
Lyle and Ignacio looked at each other curiously as Centrila gave them an evil grin and continued.
“Charlie will be riding along with you, to oversee things this time,” he said. He turned and looked at Knapp as Hector Mendoza led two fresh horses and Knapp’s already saddled black barb around the corner of the hacienda. “Charlie,” he said matter-of-factly, “if these two monkeys give you any trouble or try to cut out, I want you to kill them both in whatever manner you see fit.”
“My pleasure, boss,” said Knapp, touching his gloved fingers to the flat brim of his hat.
Seeing the Mexican house servant start changing their saddles and gear over to the fresh horses, Lyle Cady let out a tired dry breath.
“Mr. Centrila, I don’t mean to complain,” he said. “But my brother and I are as worn out and thirsty as our horses.” He eyed the whiskey glass in Centrila’s hand. “If we could get some grub in our bellies, something to drink and some rest—”
Centrila only stared at him. This time it was the sound of Knapp’s levering his rifle that cut him off.
Both Cadys turned warily and looked at the gunman as he stepped closer to them, holding his rifle aimed at them with one hand.
“Boys,” he said in a mild eerie voice, “let’s not get off on the wrong foot here. . . .”
The Mexican stepped back from the hastily saddled fresh horses. The Cadys’ tired horses, now bareback, still stood drinking at the trough.
“Where’s my manners?” said Centrila. “Hector, fill these gentlemen’s canteens for them.” He gestured toward the water trough, then smiled and said, “And bring me another whiskey, por favor.” He swished the remaining whiskey in his glass, raised the glass to his lips and drank it down.
Lyle and Ignacio Cady stood staring, hungry, thirsty and tired. Knapp reached up with the tip of his rifle barrel and tweaked it back and forth on Lyle’s earlobe.
“All right, you Cady brothers,” he said with a measure of contempt. “Let’s not impose on Mr. Centrila’s hospitality. You can fill your canteens along the way. Haul up out of here,” he demanded. “We’re going to ride all day, cover a lot of ground before sundown.”
The weary brothers turned to the saddled horses without reply.
Centrila grinned and stood watching as the three mounted and turned their horses toward the trail. He gave Knapp a nod when the gunman looked back over his shoulder at him. Then he spoke sidelong to the Mexican house servant.
“Hector, never mind the whiskey,” he said. “Lord Hargrove’s cattle buyer is coming today to see about purchasing all my cattle. Let’s make him feel welcome.”
“All of your cattle, señor?” Mendoza asked, surprised by the news.
“Every last head,” Centrila replied. He lifted his head and let out a stream of cigar smoke. “I’ve gone into the liquor and gaming business—for a while anyway. This happens to be a good time to sell cattle. I can always buy more when the market is down.” He smiled and drew on the cigar.
“Señor Centrila, I don’t know what to say. . . .” Mendoza gave a puzzled shrug.
“Don’t worry, Hector. Your job is safe,” the cattleman assured him. “The English only want the beef. They’re not interested in the land. I’m still the big bull here.” He looked at the Mexican and saw relief in his dark eyes. “Anyway, the deal is done. I’ve already purchased a saloon. I’ve got men taking possession until I get there.” He gazed off in reflection and smiled to himself in satisfaction.
Big Silver, Arizona Badlands
In the late afternoon, Sheriff Sheppard Stone stood on the boardwalk out in front of his office and watched workers take down the faded wooden sign atop the facade of the old Roi-Tan Saloon. He had not had a drink of whiskey or any other kind of hard liquor for a month. Not even a single sip of frothy beer, he reminded himself. Coincidently that was how long it had been since he rode with Sheriff Kay Deluna and the Ranger in pursuit of Bo Anson and his outlaws who had taken rail baron Curtis Siedell hostage. Being sober for a full month was certainly cause for celebration.
Don’t you think . . . ? a devilish voice asked inside him. He recognized that voice and knew full well where that question would take him if he weakened enough to follow it. Son of a bitch. . . . He let out a tight breath and raised his coffee cup to his lips, not sure if he was cursing the tormenting inner voice, or himself, or the sight of the bright new wooden sign being erected atop the saloon’s facade. The new sign read CENTRILA’S SILVER PALACE.
Yesterday, a faded wooden sign had been lowered from above the doors of Sergio Manuel’s cantina. Boards had been nailed up over the windows. Shortly after selling his business to Edsel Centrila, Sergio Manuel had vanished, money and all. The only drinking establishments left in town were Centrila’s Silver Palace and a run-down cantina, Mama Belleza’s, run by an elderly Mexican woman.
All right. . . . Stone let out another tight breath and sipped from his cup of coffee—this being his third full pot of the day, meaning he’d drunk—how many cups, ten, eleven since noon? Not to mention how much he’d drunk earlier during the day.
That’s a lot of coffee.
To hell with it. He’d been drinking more and more coffee. So what? He took another, larger sip and watched the workers nail and bolt the new sign into place. His fingers trembled a little as he dug down into his shirt pocket, inside a stiff little paper box, and fished out a cherry-flavored cough drop and stuck it inside his mouth.
More candy? again the devilish voice asked, taunting him.
No, it’s not candy, he countered.
Still, he smoothed down his shirt pocket and looked around as if making sure he hadn’t been seen. Since sobering up he’d gone around sucking on candy, hard rock, horehound, sugar plum sticks, anything he could get his h
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