From the USA Today best-selling author of Scalpers comes a tale of gun-slinging adventure in the Old West. Arizona Territory Ranger Sam Burrack is sent to retrieve the sheriff of Big Silver, Arizona, and escort him to Yuma.
Sheriff Sheppard Stone once saved the life of Territory Judge Albert Long, but the judge has heard stories of Stone turning into a reckless drunk - stories that are confirmed when Burrack rides into town. Holed up in his office on a days-long whiskey bender, Stone has been terrifying the townsfolk and firing bullets into the street.
Getting him sober is no easy task. But once they hit the trail, Burrack learns of the sheriff's deadly enemies, which is sobering news indeed. As Stone dries out, Burrack begins to see the man he used to be. The only question is whether Stone will live long enough to be that man again.
Release date: July 7, 2015
Print pages: 304
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Showdown at Gun Hill
Big Silver, the Arizona Badlands
At first light, Arizona Territory Ranger Sam Burrack followed a series of pistol shots the last mile into town. The shots came spaced apart, as if offered by some wild-eyed orator who used a gun to drive home the points of his raging soliloquy. Sensing no great urgency in the shots, Sam had circled wide of the town limits and ridden in from the south, keeping his copper black-point dun at an easy gallop. At his side he led a spare horse on a short rope.
Being familiar with the position of the town, he knew if he’d followed the main trail into Big Silver at this time of morning he would have ridden face-first into the rising sunlight—not a wise move under the circumstances. Never a wise move, he reminded himself, given his line of work.
His line of work . . .
A Winchester repeating rifle stood in its saddle boot; his bone-handled Colt stood holstered on his hip, hidden by his duster but close to his right hand. Necessary tools for his line of work . . .
A block ahead of him another pistol shot rang out in the still air—the fourth, he noted to himself. Along the street townsfolk who had scrambled for cover a few minutes earlier when the shooting began now looked out at the Ranger from behind shipping crates, firewood and anything else sufficient to stop a bullet.
“He’s in his office, Ranger!” a nervous townsman’s voice called out from a recessed doorway.
“Thank God you’re here!” a woman’s voice put in. “Please don’t hurt him.”
“Hurt him, ha!” another voice shouted. “Shoot that drunken son of a—” His words stopped short under the roar of a fifth gunshot.
“Everybody keep back out of sight,” the Ranger called out.
He veered his dun into the mouth of an alleyway for safety’s sake and stepped down from his saddle. The big dun grumbled and pawed its hoof at the dirt, yet Sam noted that the animal showed no signs of being spooked or otherwise thrown off by the sound of gunfire.
“Good boy,” he said to the dun, rubbing its muzzle. The spare horse sidled close to the dun. As Sam spun the dun’s reins and the spare’s lead rope around a post, a townsman dressed in a clerk’s apron hurried into the alley and collapsed back against the wall of a building.
“Man, are we glad to see you, Ranger!” he said. “Didn’t expect anybody to show up so soon.”
“Glad I can help,” was all Sam replied. He didn’t bother explaining that he’d been headed to Big Silver to begin with, or that he’d ridden all night from Dunston, another hillside mining town some thirty miles back along the Mexican border. As soon as the telegram arrived, Sam had gathered his dun and the spare horse and headed out. He’d made sure both horses were well grained and watered. He’d eaten his dinner in the saddle, from a small canvas bag made up at Dunston’s only restaurant. “Good eten,” he could still hear the old Dutch cook say, handing him the bag.
He drew the Winchester from its boot and checked it. Hopefully he wouldn’t need it. But you never know, he told himself.
“Say, Ranger,” said the man in the clerk’s apron, eyeing the Winchester, “you’re not going in there alone, are you?”
“Yep,” Sam said. He started to take a step out onto the empty street.
“Because I can get half the men in this town to arm up and go with you,” the man said.
Sam just looked at him; the man looked embarrassed.
“All right,” he said, red-faced, “why didn’t we do that to begin with? is what you’re wondering. The fact is, we didn’t know what to do, a situation like this.” He gestured a nervous hand in the direction of the gunfire. “He claimed he’s a wolf! Threatened to rip somebody’s heart out if we didn’t all do like he told us!”
“A wolf . . . ,” the Ranger said flatly, looking off along the street. He took a breath.
“That’s right, a wolf,” the man said even though Sam hadn’t posed his words as a question. “Can you beat that?”
“It wasn’t their hearts he said he’d rip out,” another townsman said, cowering back into the alley. “It was their throats!” He gripped a hand beneath his bearded chin and stared at Sam wide-eyed with fear.
“It was their heart, Oscar,” the man in the clerk’s apron said. “I ought to know what I heard.”
“Throat,” the old man insisted in a lowered voice as he cowered farther back.
Sam looked all around. The alley had started to fill with people pouring into it from behind the row of buildings along the main street. Another shot rang out; people ducked instinctively.
Number six, Sam told himself.
“All of you stay back,” he said calmly.
As he stepped out and walked along the street, he knew that he only had a few seconds during reload to make whatever gains he could for himself. He pictured the loading gate of a smoking revolver opening, an empty shell falling from its smoking chamber to the floor. Another shell dropped, and another. . . .
As he walked forward he gauged his pace, keeping it deliberately slow, steady, trying to time everything just right. Now he saw the fresh rounds appear, being thumbed into the gun one at a time by a hand that was anxious, unsteady, in a boiling rage. Then, with the scene playing itself out in his mind, as if signaled by some unseen clock ingrained in his instincts, Sam stopped in the middle of the street—it was time—and faced a faded wooden sign that read in bold letters above a closed door: SHERIFF’S OFFICE & TOWN JAIL.
Here goes. . . .
“Sheriff Sheppard Stone,” he called out loud enough to be heard through the closed door, above an angry rant of curses and threats toward the world at large. “It’s Ranger Sam Burrack. Lay your gun down, come out here and talk to me.” Looking around, he saw empty whiskey bottles littering the ground and boardwalk out in front of the building. Broken bottle necks lay strewn where bullets had blasted their fragile bodies into shards.
“Well, well, well,” a whiskey-slurred voice called out through a half-open front window, “Saint Samuel Burrack. To what do I owe the honor of your visit?”
Saint Samuel Burrack . . . ? He hadn’t heard that one before. Just whiskey talking, he decided.
“Territory judge Albert Long sent me, Sheriff,” he said. “He wants to see you in Yuma.” He wasn’t going to mention that the judge had heard outrageous complaints about Stone’s drunkenness and had sent Sam to persuade the sheriff to step down from office. A year earlier, drunk, Stone had accidentally shot two of his toes off.
“Oh . . . what about?” Stone asked in a wary tone. “Is he wanting my badge?” He paused, but only for a moment. “If he is, tell him to come take it himself. Don’t send some upstart do-gooder to take on the job.”
Upstart do-gooder? A couple more names Sam hadn’t heard himself called before—although he’d heard himself called worse.
He took a breath. All right, this wasn’t going to be easy, he told himself, but at least there were no bullets flying through the air. Not yet anyway.
So far so good.
“The judge said you and he were old friends,” he replied, ignoring the drunken threat, the name-calling. “Said you once saved his life. Now he wants you to come visit him . . . spend some time on his ranch outside Yuma, I understand.”
“Ha!” Stone said in more of a jeer than a laugh. “Spend some time on the judge’s ranch. . . .” His words trailed into inaudible cursing and slurred mumbling. Then he called out, “Let me ask you something, Ranger. Does anybody ever fall for these yarns you pull out of your hat?”
Sam let it go. But he couldn’t stand out here much longer. He had to get the gun out of the sheriff’s hand. Whiskey was too unpredictable to reason with.
“I’m coming in, Sheriff Stone,” he said. “Don’t shoot.”
“You ain’t coming in! Take one step, you’re dead!” Stone shouted, the whiskey suddenly boiling up again.
“I’ve got to. It’s too hot out here,” Sam called out, calmly, taking a step forward. He ignored a gunshot when it erupted through the half-open window and kicked up dirt only inches from the toe of his boot.
“The next one won’t be aimed at the dirt!” the drunken sheriff shouted.
“I’m coming in,” Sam said in a steady tone. He knew a warning shot when he saw one. Whiskey or no whiskey, he had to gain all the space he could, get in closer. It was a dangerous gamble, but he took it. Another bullet erupted. More dirt kicked up at his feet. Realizing Stone had not made good on his threat, Sam took another step, then another.
“Hold it, damn it!” Stone shouted. “Come on in, then, but first lay that rifle on the ground! Don’t test me on this.”
All right . . . Sam let out a tense breath, calming himself.
“Sheriff, look,” he said, “I’m laying it down right here.” He stooped, laid the Winchester on the dirt, then straightened and walked forward, his hands chest high.
When he stepped through crunching broken glass onto the boardwalk, the door swung open before he reached for the handle. In the shade of the office, Sheriff Stone stepped back five feet, a big Colt cocked in his hand. He weaved drunkenly. His eyes were red-rimmed and staring through a veil of rage. Sam glanced past him through a cloud of burnt gunpowder and saw two frightened eyes staring at him from the jail’s only cell.
“You’re a brazen bastard. I’ll give you that, Burrack,” Stone said, the gun level and steady in spite of the whiskey goading his thoughts, his rationality.
Sam offered no reply. He stopped and gazed at the sheriff, letting his hands lower a little.
“The judge said you kept Dexter Benson from killing him midtrial, over in Merit,” Sam said, wanting to cool the tension.
Stone stared at him. Sam saw the sheriff appear to replay the scene in his whiskey-pinched mind.
“Long time ago,” Stone said finally. Sam noted the Colt never lowered an inch. Drunk or sober, this lawman was no easy call. “I did shoot ol’ Dexter the Snake. Somebody had slipped him a gun. He jumped up with it from his chair and flipped a table over—I put three rounds through the table before he could get a shot off.”
He was talking, which was good, Sam noted to himself. Inside the cell behind the sheriff, the two frightened eyes had moved sidelong to the farthest corner and sunk back into the striped shadows.
“Judge said your shots fit in a circle no bigger around than a tin top,” Sam said to Stone.
“My shots always did,” Stone said, still with the stare, the leveled Colt.
Always did . . . not always do, Sam noted, trying to get an idea of what was going on in the man’s mind.
“What happened here?” Sam asked bluntly, gesturing a nod toward the bottle-littered street.
“I’ve been drunk longer than I’ve ever been sober,” Stone said in a defiant tone. “That’s what happened here. Think the judge will want me to visit him, the shape I’m in?” He emphasized the word visit with a wry twist.
“If he doesn’t, he can send you home,” Sam replied. “He said to bring you, so that’s what I’m doing.” He lowered his hands a little more. Watching for any change in the way the drunken sheriff kept his Colt level and steady, he took another step closer.
“Huh-uh, Ranger,” said Stone, “not so fast. You’re not taking me anywhere.”
Sam stopped. He needed an edge, something to tip the scales in his favor, but so far he saw no sign of one.
“Lift that Colt off your hip easy-like and pitch it away,” Stone ordered. “I’ve heard too many stories of how you trick a man and get the drop on him. It ain’t going to happen here.” As he spoke he swayed on his feet, dangerously close to falling. He batted his eyes to keep them open; still the sheriff’s Colt stayed leveled and steady in his hand.
Sam just stared at him for a second. Finally he eased his right hand toward the butt of his holster Colt.
“You’re the law here,” he said humbly. “You’re the one holding the gun.”
“You’re well told I am,” said Stone, swaying even more on his feet.
Sam reached down and lifted his Colt calmly from its holster and raised it slowly, his hand around the butt.
Stone noted that instead of using two fingers to raise the Colt, Sam used his whole hand. But before he could say anything about it, Stone saw the Colt level and cocked in the Ranger’s hand. The sheriff had just witnessed his best advantage turn into an equal standoff.
“Damn you, Burrack,” he growled, realizing his was no longer the only cocked gun in play. “I told you, you’re not pulling that trick on me.”
“What trick?” Sam said quietly, stepping closer as he spoke, getting arm’s length from Stone before the drunken sheriff seemed to realize it.
“That trick!” Stone said, incensed, knowing he’d just been had, knowing he’d even asked for it. His face reddened with humiliation.
“Turn the gun away from me and uncock it, Sheriff,” Sam said with more authority in his voice. “You’ve taken this as far as it’s going.” He’d moved in, the situation turning better for him.
“Why, you—” Stone’s words stopped short as Sam’s big Colt swung around in a flash, his thumb clamping down in front of the cocked hammer for safety. The long barrel made the hard, sharp sound of steel on bone and sent the sheriff backward to the floor, knocked out cold. Stone’s own cocked pistol flew from his hand and went off as it slid away across the plank floor.
The Ranger stepped over and picked up the smoking Colt and laid it on the sheriff’s battered oak desk.
“Everything all right in there?” a voice called out from the street.
“Yep, we’ve worked it out,” Sam called back in reply. He looked into the cell and saw the frightened prisoner spring from the shadowed corner with a cry of relief.
“My God, Ranger! Let me out of here!” the prisoner shrieked, grabbing the bars with both hands as if to pull them down. Sam noted his ragged work clothes and mining boots. A week’s worth of dark beard stubble shone on his face.
Sam picked up the key to the cell from atop the sheriff’s desk. “What’s your name? What are you in for?” he asked quietly as he walked over to the cell door, staring at the disheveled hair and the terrified eyes.
“Caywood Bratcher . . . in for drunk and rowdy,” the prisoner said hastily. “I might have also been a little disrespectful to some passing townsfolk.”
Sam started to stick the key in the door lock. But he hesitated. “You don’t want me finding out you’re lying,” he warned.
“I’m not! I’m not! I swear I’m not,” the miner said rapidly. “I was drunk and rowdy, is all. I’ll pay my fine, whatever you say. Please let me out!” As the Ranger pushed the key in the lock and turned it, the prisoner glanced fearfully toward the knocked-out sheriff. “Although three days locked in here with that lunatic ought to be punishment enough. I might never drink again.”
Sam glanced all around the small office, seeing bullet holes in the walls, ricochet dings on the iron bars.
“I’m letting you go, Caywood Bratcher,” he said. “Get on back to your mining.”
“I’m gone,” the prisoner said over his shoulder, already headed for the door. “No disrespect for the law, Ranger, but that crazy sumbitch turns himself into a wolf, a bear, a bat . . . all kinds of things—gave me the willies just hearing about it.”
“Get on out of here, Caywood,” Sam said.
“No offense, Ranger, there’s plenty of crazy drunks in Big Silver without the sheriff being one,” the miner said on his way out the door. “Something ought to be done.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Sam said quietly as the miner’s boots stomped hurriedly across the boardwalk.
Sheriff Stone awakened inside the cell, sprawled on one of the four cots set up along the walls. Outside the cell, the Ranger stood holding two steaming mugs of coffee in his hands. He watched as the waking sheriff moaned and raised a hand to the dark bruise reaching up along his left jawline. Early sunlight streamed through the front window and partially open door.
“Morning, Sheriff,” Sam said, moving forward to the cell.
Stone pushed himself up onto the side of the cot with shaky hands and stared out at him with a puzzled expression. He looked over at the sunlight; he rubbed a hand on his sore beard-stubbled jaw. Then he looked back at the Ranger.
“Ranger Burrack . . . ?” he said with uncertainty. “Is that . . . you?”
“It’s me, Sheriff,” Sam said. “Can you use some hot coffee?”
“Oh yes,” the sheriff said without hesitation. He made a failed attempt to rise from the cot, then sank back down, looking as if the room had started to tilt around him.
“Easy does it, Sheriff,” Sam cautioned. “You’ve been in and out for a while. Careful getting your legs back.”
“In and out for a while?” said Stone, confused, looking all around the cell, seeing early sunlight shine through a small barred window. “The sun’s still coming up.”
“Yep, but you haven’t seen it do that the past two days,” Sam replied. “Get up slow and easy.”
“Two days?” the sheriff said, this time making it to his feet unsteadily when he pushed himself up and swayed forward.
“Two days,” Sam repeated. He stepped over and set the sheriff’s coffee mug on the battered desk and picked up the key to the cell.
The sheriff managed to stagger forward and grab the bars to steady himself.
“I’ve been out for two days. . . .” He pondered it for a moment, trying to pull up any memory of the time he’d lost. He looked up and all around. “Why am I locked in my own jail?” he asked. “Who hit me in the jaw?”
“I locked you up for your own good,” Sam said. “I hit you in the jaw because I didn’t want to shoot you. Sound fair?” he asked in a quiet tone.
Stone only stared, rubbing his sore jaw.
“Where’s Caywood, my prisoner?” he asked.
“I let him go,” said Sam, unlocking the cell door. “I needed the room.”
Stone sniffed the air.
“It smells something awful in here,” he said.
“Yep, it does,” Sam agreed.
Stone looked around at the bullet holes and ricochet nicks all over his office, a pile of empty whiskey bottles in a garbage crate.
“Jesus, I did all this?” he said.
“Yep,” Sam said again. He swung the cell door open and stepped back for the sheriff to walk out of the cell. Stone made his way around behind his desk and hung on to its edge. He reached a shaky hand down and pulled open a bottom drawer.
“I—I don’t remember much,” he said. His trembling fingers searched all around in the open drawer. “I’ve got to pull myself together . . . get to work.”
“I threw it out, Sheriff,” Sam said. “The drinking’s over.”
“I always have a little bracer this time of morning,” Stone said. “It steadies my hand the whole day.”
“Not this morning, Sheriff,” Sam said. “We’ve got a long ride ahead of us.”
The sheriff looked at him through bloodshot eyes, his mood turning ugly at the prospect of not having a drink to calm his shakes and tremors.
“The hell you say,” he replied, straightening. “Who do you think you are, Ranger, coming in here, giving orders, making me look like a fool in my own town—”
“You’ve been telling townsfolk that you turn into a wolf, Sheriff,” Sam said, cutting him off. “It’s time to get off the whiskey.”
“A wolf?” Stone said. That stopped him. “Jesus . . .” He squinted and dug deep for any remembrance of the past few days. Things were starting to come back to him, but his mind was working slowly, still under the effects of alcohol. He straightened again and ran his trembling fingers back through his graying hair. “So what? Lakota medicine men claim to do that all the time.”
“You’re not a medicine man,” Sam said flatly. “You’re a lawman. A lawman who’s been drunk a long time. Now it’s time to get sober.”
“Don’t preach,” the sheriff said in a warning tone. He glanced down into the empty drawer again, and an angry look appeared on his face when he still couldn’t find his hidden bottle.
Sam just watched.
“You’ve no right coming here sounding off to me, sticking me in a cell, shaming me,” Stone said, needing a drink more and more with every passing minute.
“You shame yourself, Sheriff,” Sam said. “If I wanted to make you look bad, I’d lead you out of here in handcuffs.”
“Lead me out of here?” Stone said. “Lead me where?”
Sam let out a patient breath. “You’re riding with me to Yuma, to Judge Long’s ranch, remember? We talked about it.” He wasn’t going to mention that when they’d talked about it, Stone had refused to go.
Stone tried hard to remember. He only managed to pull up parts of the conversation they’d had.
“Yeah, sort of,” he said. As he spoke he reached down and felt his Colt in its holster. He looked back up at the Ranger.
“I holstered it for you,” Sam said. “I didn’t want you seen leaving here unarmed either. That would have been as bad as handcuffed.”
Stone took a deep breath, realizing how tough the Ranger could have played this if he’d had a mind to.
“Obliged, Ranger,” he said, trying to calm his shaking hands. “I didn’t mean to get mouthy with you. It was the whiskey talking. It’s been doing my thinking for me lately.”
“I know it,” Sam said. “As long you say you’ve been drunk, it’s going to try to keep doing your thinking for you. You’ve got to leave it in the bottle.”
“I’ll get sober,” Stone said. “Only, it would help to have just one drink—just a shot, enough to get myself untangled—”
“No drink,” Sam said. “I told you we’ve got a long ride ahead. You’re going to make it there sober.”
Anger flared again on Stone’s brow. His hand dropped over his gun butt.
“I need a drink bad, Ranger, damn it! You do not want to cross me on this.”
“It’s not loaded,” Sam said calmly, nodding at the holstered Colt standing beneath the sheriff’s trembling palm. “I didn’t want them seeing you unarmed, but there’s no way I’d trust you with a loaded gun.”
The sheriff stared at him, his hands and face trembling like those of a man with a bad fever. Finally he managed to get himself back under control. He eased down into his desk chair and gripped his shaky hands around the hot coffee mug. Then he raised his hands and swabbed them over his sweaty face. “I don’t know how I ever got in this shape, Ranger,” he said.
“Think about it later,” Sam said. “First thing to do is get yourself out of it.”
“You’re right,” Stone said humbly. “I’ve got to get myself sobered and cleaned up.” He raised the coffee mug to his lips with both hands and sipped it down carefully. “First thing I’m going to get is a hot bath.”
Sam only watched and listened, the sheriff sounding a little inauthentic to him.
“It’s going to take me a while,” Stone continued. “I’ll tell you what, Ranger, why don’t you ride on ahead? I’ll just get cleaned up some and join you along—”
“We’re ready to ride, Sheriff,” Sam said, cutting him off.
Again the whiskey flared in Stone’s head. “Damn it, Ranger, I can’t just haul up at the last minute and ride off to Yuma with you! I’ve got to get my horse ready, load my saddlebags—”
“I’ve had two days to prepare,” Sam said. “I boarded my spare horse at the livery. Your horse and mine are ready, standing at the hitch rail. Your saddlebags are packed. The blacksmith is going to serve as deputy while you’re gone.”
“Elmore Frazer can’t handle my job,” Stone said. “Law work ain’t like shoeing a horse. A man has to be ready for anything, at all times.”
Sam gave him a look; Stone’s face reddened in shame.
“There’s a water hole seven miles out,” Sam said, letting the matter drop. “You can get cleaned up there.”
The sheriff wrung his shaking hands together, all out of excuses.
“I see you’ve thought of every damn thing, Burrack,” he said with sarcasm. “You going to crack me in the head again if I say I ain’t going?”
Sam didn’t reply; he only stared, leaving the sheriff’s question hanging between them.
“Damn this all to hell,” Stone growled, pushing himself up from his chair. “I don’t even remember saying I’d go to Yuma with you.”
“There must be a lot you don’t remember, Sheriff,” Sam said, stepping over and opening the front door for them. “Maybe some of it will come back to you along the trail.”
Stone reached over and took down his hat and riding duster from a wall peg and put them on. He started toward the door. Then he stopped.
“I need to tell you, Ranger, there might be some saddle tramps wanting to kill me,” he said.
“Might be?” Sam said.
“Yeah, there will be. I’m sure of it,” said Stone. “They work for a rancher named Edsel Centrila. Ever heard of him?”
“I’ve heard of him,” Sam said. “Why does he want you killed?”
“He claims I owe him money,” Stone said.
“Do you?” Sam asked.
“Yeah, sort of,” said Stone, getting edgy again just talking about it.
“Nobody sort of owes somebody money,” Sam said. “Either you do or you don’t.”
“I do, then, if you put it that way,” said Stone. “Anyway, we could run into them out there. They could be waiting anywhere along the trail to Yuma.”
The Ranger gestured him toward the open door.
“I’m glad you told me before we got under way,” he said wryly.
“It just came back to me. I figured you ought to know,” said Stone. “These gunmen are the Cady brothers, Lyle and Ignacio. They’re dangerous hombres—especially Ignacio.” He walked out the door, across the boardwalk and down to the waiting horses.
“Obliged for you telling me,” Sam said in the same tone as they unhitched their mounts and swung up into their saddles. “If anything el
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