In this fast-paced new installment in bestselling author Ralph Compton's Gunfighter series, a bandit who takes the identity of a dead lawman finds that the best place to hide is in plain sight.
Jake Polk is a wanted man. He's spent years on the wrong side of the law staying one step ahead of the marshals. His most recent stage robbery ends with a posse hot on his trail. He's opened up just enough room to take a breather when he stumbles upon something astonishing. It's the body of a man resting peacefully next to a burned-out campfire. It's clear the man died in his sleep of natural causes. This is the chance Jake has been waiting for.
According to a letter in the man's saddlebag, he's Marshall Owen Dent, on his way to the town of Riverbend to take over as the local lawman. Jake switches identities to avoid the posse, but what starts out as a quick means of escape may have deeper consequences when Jake considers making the change permanent.
Release date: June 29, 2021
Print pages: 304
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Ralph Compton the Wrong Side of the Law
Robert J. Randisi
Tom Palmer studied the front of the bank from across the street. He'd been recruited for this job by his old friend Stan Hargrove, but he didn't like the rest of the men Stan had working with him. He wished he could talk Stan out of the job, but the older man was intent on hitting this bank in the town of Blackstone, New Mexico.
The town was growing, Stan had told him, and the bank was going to have the payrolls of several new businesses that were opening up, as well as those of a couple of big ranches in the area. "If there was ever a time to hit this bank, Tommy, it's now!" Stan said with enthusiasm.
Stan Hargrove was almost sixty, and he had spent the better part of his life as a small-time crook. He seemed to think that taking this bank was going to make him a big-time operator. So Tom had agreed to hold the horses while the old man went into the bank with Dick and Bill Evans.
But Palmer could see how the Evans brothers-who fancied themselves the James boys-snickered at Stan behind his back. It was only the year before, in Northfield, Minnesota, that things had gone wrong for the James/Younger Gang. The Evans boys seemed to have forgotten that.
Palmer had been involved in many heists throughout the Southwest, whether they be banks or trains or stagecoaches, but up to this point, he had never killed anybody. He didn't want anyone killed during this job, either, especially not Stan Hargrove.
The Evans boys came walking toward the bank from one side, and Stan from the other. Palmer was to remain where he was and keep watch. He was also standing by the horses, which were across the street from the bank rather than right out front. A bunch of horses in front of a bank, that was a dead giveaway.
Stan went into the bank first, as planned. He was followed by the Evans boys, also according to plan. But when the shooting started, that was definitely not according to plan.
Palmer started to run across to the bank, but the doors opened and the two Evans boys came running out. They headed for the horses, trying to brush past Palmer, who reached out and grabbed Dick's arm.
"I dunno!" Dick Evans pulled his arm free and started running again.
Palmer headed for the bank again, saw Stan stagger through the door, holding one hand to his belly, which was blossoming red.
"Come on, Stan!" Palmer shouted, grabbing his friend's arm.
Some men with badges came out of the bank next with guns in their hands. Palmer half-dragged, half-carried Stan to the horses. The Evans boys had already mounted up and started riding away. That attracted the attention of the lawmen, who started shooting at them. This gave Palmer a chance to hoist Stan up onto his horse and to mount his own. Instead of lighting out in the same direction as the brothers, Palmer decided to go the opposite way, hoping it would take the lawmen valuable moments to realize what he was doing.
It was the precious time Palmer and Hargrove needed to get out of town. . . .
The original plan, if the men got separated, was to meet a few miles out of town, in a clearing they had scouted days before. Palmer had no way of knowing if the Evans boys would be there, or if they had any money from the bank job, but he headed for the meeting place, just the same.
He managed to get to the clearing and keep Stan mounted until they got there. He leaped from his horse in time to catch the older man as he finally fell off. He lowered his friend to the ground easily, got him onto his back.
"Let me see," he said, trying to move Stan's hands from his midsection.
"It's bad, Tommy," Stan said. "Real bad."
"What happened, Stan?"
"It was those Evans boys," Stan said. "They spent the night drinking at a whorehouse."
"And they opened their big mouths?" Palmer said. "I warned you about them, Stan. I told you-"
"Yeah, yeah," Stan said, "can we save the I-told-ya-sos for another time? Maybe at my grave?"
"I just wanna live long enough to hear what them boys got to say," Stan went on.
"If they have the nerve to show up here," Palmer said.
"They will," Stan said.
"How do you know?"
"They don't know if I got away with the money or not," Stan said. "I had it in my hands, Tommy. I had it! But then them lawmen started shootin'."
Palmer went to his horse for his canteen, held Stan's head while the man drank, then removed his bandanna and poured some water on it.
"Let me clean your wound and get a look, Stan."
"Ahhhh, go ahead," Stan finally said. He dropped his hand away from his belly, and blood just seemed to spurt out. As he had said, it was bad. Palmer couldn't clean it, so he simply tried to stanch the flow of blood with the bandanna.
"Owww, watch it!" Stan snapped, his face etched with pain.
At that point they both heard horses approaching.
"A posse?" Stan asked. "Or Dick and Bill?"
Palmer stood up to have a look. If it was a posse, he didn't intend to leave Stan alone, but he doubted the town could have put one together that fast. Then he saw there were only two riders.
"It's the Evans boys," he said. He remained standing and waited.
The two riders reined in their horses and dismounted. Before they could speak, Palmer hit Dick Evans in the mouth with his fist, knocking the older brother on his ass.
"What the hell-" Bill snapped, his hand moving toward his gun.
"Easy, Billy," Dick said, getting to his feet. "Tommy's just a little pissed about Stan gettin' shot."
"You left him there!" Palmer shouted. "The two of you lit out and left him behind. I had to get him and drag him to his horse."
"Then he's lucky he had you," Dick said, wiping blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. "How is he?"
"Not good," Palmer said.
They all looked down at the supine man, whose eyes were now closed, his face ashen.
"He looks dead," Bill said.
"Shut up!" Palmer snapped.
"Where's the money?" Dick asked. "He had a bag in his hands."
"He didn't have it," Palmer said. "He couldn't hold on to it once he got shot."
"Yer a liar!" Bill shouted. "Where'd you put it?" He looked at his brother. "They had time to stash it."
"Yeah, they did," Dick said, slowly, "but I don't think they woulda done that."
"I'm gonna look around," Bill said, not as trusting as his big brother.
"Go ahead," Palmer said, kneeling down next to Stan. "Can you hear me, Stan?"
"I hear everybody," Stan said. "I ain't dead yet." He opened his eyes, looked up at Dick. "You boys talked, didn'tcha?"
"What?" Dick said.
"Probably Billy, not you, Dick," Stan said. "Bragged to some whore, didn't he?"
"He didn't mean nothin', Stan," Dick said. "We're sorry you got shot."
"Tommy's right," Stan said. "You both left me there to die."
Stan's bloody hand came up, holding his gun. He pointed it at Dick Evans and fired.
"Wha-" Billy said, startled. He turned from searching Stan's saddlebag, reached for his gun. Palmer had no choice but to draw his own gun and fire. The bullet struck Billy just below the chin, snapping his head back. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Palmer turned to look at Dick Evans, who was on his back, staring at the sky. It was just at that moment Palmer saw the light go out in his eyes. Both Evans brothers were dead. Tom Palmer couldn't really blame Stan Hargrove for what he had done. Things had gone horribly wrong, and they hadn't had to.
"Stan, let's get you-" he said, looking over at his friend, but it was clear at that moment that Palmer was the only one left alive.
The previous night the four of them had sat together in the Straight Flush Saloon, going over last-minute plans for the bank job.
"And don't anybody get drunk and talk to no whores" was the last thing Stan said.
"Ya think we're stupid or somethin', old man?" Bill demanded.
"I think you are, yeah," Stan said. "Dick, you gotta control your brother."
"Old-timer," Bill said angrily, "you gotta control yer mouth!"
Well, as it turned out, Stan's mouth had been right on the money.
Palmer wasn't going to leave that clearing without giving his friend a decent burial. And he did the decent thing and buried the brothers, too-although they had to share the same shallow, unmarked grave.
Once he was done, he went through the brothers' saddlebags for whatever supplies he could salvage-and, truth be told, to make sure that neither one of them was holding out and had the money. He got some coffee, a pot, some beef jerky, a bag of makings, but not a dime between them. He didn't have the heart to take anything from his friend, so he simply tossed Stan's saddlebags into the grave with him. He unsaddled all three horses and set them free and dug a fourth hole for the saddles. If a posse came this way, he didn't want them to find anything helpful.
The job going bad and losing Stan had convinced Palmer that it was time for a change in his life. And for that to happen, he had to have a clean slate. While digging, he made up his mind to ride north. He knew there were plenty of wanted posters on him floating around the Southwest. First chance he got, he'd have to shave off his beard to change his appearance. He hated to do it, because he'd had the facial hair for ten years, but it was time to go clean-shaven. He didn't think there were any posters on him looking clean-shaven.
He stood over his friend's grave and felt bad that he couldn't put a marker on it. He also felt bad that, not being a religious man, he had no idea what final words to say. So he just said, "So long, Stan."
After he'd done everything he could to cover his trail, he mounted his pony and rode north.
It was the smoke that drew Palmer to the site of the burned wagon. The flames had long since died down, but the smoke was still drifting straight up, as if from a chimney.
He topped a rise and looked across the Great Plains of South Dakota Territory. He spotted the wreckage of not one wagon, but two. He looked around, didn't see anyone in any direction. Since he'd been forced to leave his last town in a hurry, his pockets were mostly empty, as was his canteen. He wasn't normally the kind of person to pick through the bones of the dead, but in this instance he didn't seem to have any other choice. The wagons were there, nobody else was around, and he was in need.
He urged his tired pony on and rode toward the smoking remains. As he approached, a scent other than that of burning wood came to his nostrils-torched flesh. He wasn't looking forward to what he was going to find, but he kept riding.
As he got closer, the pony began to shy away from the combined smells, and Palmer had to urge him on. Finally, he took pity on the horse and stopped far enough away from the scene for the animal to relax. He dismounted and walked to the burned remnants of two Conestoga wagons.
Palmer's talents lay in bank, stage, and train robberies. He wasn't a tracker and didn't read sign, but he could see that the tracks in the dirt around the wagons were from unshod horses-likely Indian ponies. He knew that several Sioux tribes called this area home and probably didn't like having wagons carrying whites crossing their land. And he knew that the Sioux, even if they had waited and gone picking through the rubble, would have left some things behind that were of no value to them, but were valuable to Palmer.
He saw the bodies and winced. There were a man, a woman, and three children. He knew there could have been more kids, for the Indians would probably have carried away any who had survived the attack. They liked taking young boys to raise as slaves and young girls as wives. These children appeared to be two teenage girls and a small boy who had taken an arrow in the back-which may have simply been accidental. The adults seemed to have been in their late thirties, which was roughly his age, and each had several arrows piercing their bodies. Palmer was pleased to see that none of the dead had been scalped. Scalping was actually a practice instituted by whites so they could collect bounties on the Indians they killed. There were savages on both sides, red and white.
There were no horses around. The Indians would definitely have taken them. Palmer also didn't see any blankets or much in the way of clothing. Those were also things that would have been taken. There were no guns.
Although it went against the grain for him to go through a dead man's pockets, he forced himself and came away with some paper money and coins, both of which the Indians would've left. It came to about forty dollars, which almost made him feel rich-guilty, but rich.
In the back of one of the burned-out wagons, he found an open trunk. Some articles of clothing had been removed and tossed about; others must have been taken away. He knew Indians liked colorful clothing, especially women's dresses. They took them for their squaws and sometimes even wore the dresses themselves. The other thing he couldn't find neither hide nor hair of was whiskey. If there had been any, the Indians would've gotten it. He did find a barrel that was still half filled with water, and so dipped his canteen in to fill it.
He was almost satisfied with what he had gotten and ready to leave these folks in peace when he saw some papers blowing in the slight breeze. He gathered them up, smoothed them out, and read a few of them. Most were letters, but not from family members or friends. A few were from the mayor and town council of a town called Integrity. The dead man was apparently on his way there to become the town's new marshal. According to the letters, the officials of Integrity were very impressed with his history as a lawman back East, and were very pleased that he was looking to do the same work as he came west with his family. The last letter was the formal offer of the job, complete with a house for him and his family to live in.
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