Authors: Jane Toombs
Books We Love Ltd.
Copyright 2012 by Jane Toombs
Cover art by Michelle Lee Copyright 2012
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Mark Halloran swung into the saddle and left the line camp behind. His sorrel snorted, the horse’s breath misty in the chill morning air. To the east, across the river, the sun hadn’t risen high enough to touch the ice-choked water of the Pecos. Thin, rosy-tinted clouds lay above the distant caprock of the Staked Plains.
There was something about dawn that took a man out of himself.
Two years ago Mark had seen an Apache standing on a faraway bluff with his arms raised to greet the rising sun. He’d felt a flash of kinship with him, though that hadn’t kept Mark from making sure the same Indian wasn’t trailing him with a night ambush in mind.
He hadn’t ridden line since he’d begun as a cowhand, five years ago, wouldn’t be riding it now if Hank Hendricks hadn’t gotten himself knifed in a San Patricio cantina in a fight over some senorita de la noche.
Mark didn’t mind line-riding, checking for stray Dolan calves and turning them back before they strayed onto Chisum land. This was a welcome break from riding herd on that new bunch of drifters his boss, Jim Dolan, had hired. They were a lot handier with Colts than with cows. Dolan sure must be expecting trouble.
He headed west, away from the Pecos and its straggle of leafless cottonwoods. Across the rolling brown plains to the north, Capitan Peak’s snowy dome glowed red. It was going to be a fine day—cold but sunny, with no snow except in the mountains. Maybe he’d scare up a turkey. He was getting a mite tired of chewing jerky.
The faint notes of a bird drifted on the dawn breeze. Mark listened, then reined in the sorrel. Not a bird. A man, whistling. One of Chisum’s hands? The sound came from somewhere beyond a clump of cotton woods to his right, on Dolan land.
The whistler could be anyone as Dolan and Chisum land abutted along here. A year ago he might have hailed the cowboy, no matter who he worked for, and talked a few minutes, but Chisum, like Dolan, had been hiring gunmen lately. Mark wasn’t looking for trouble.
He started to urge the sorrel on when he smelled wood smoke. His eyes narrowed. Could be a breakfast campfire, or could be another kind of fire altogether. His fingers touched the stock of the Winchester in its saddle scabbard. The whistling continued, clear and plaintive, and triggered a memory from last summer’s round-up.
Riding with a teen-aged hand named Billy Bonney, flushing cows from the salt-cedar tangles, he’d listened to the same damn melody. “Silver Threads Among The Gold.”
“My ma’s favorite song,” Bonney had told him. “She died young.”
If Bonney was his name. Dolan had said Billy’s last name might be Antrim or maybe McCarty, but in the New Mexico Territory you called a man by whatever name he chose to give you.
Which was one reason Mark was here. Billy had quit Dolan to ride for John Tunstall, a newcomer from England who was a friend of Chisum’s. Mark turned the sorrel and headed north, keeping to the cover of an outcropping of rock near the trees. If Billy was boiling coffee, he’d join him for a cup. If he’d lit the fire for a different reason, Mark’s visit wouldn’t be so friendly.
He dismounted and tied the sorrel to a cotton wood sapling. Carrying his Winchester, he eased his way among the rocks, snaked his way through until he could see beyond them but still remain concealed.
A slight young man crouched beside a tiny fire with his back to Mark. A branding iron heated in the flames. A gray horse stood some yards away with a rifle still in the scabbard. A yearling lay beside the fire, its legs roped together and topside rump carrying the Dolan brand. It looked like Billy was aiming to change that.
Mark had never caught a brand-blotter in the act before. He raised the Winchester and sighted through the rocks. Shoot now; ask questions later. He lined up Billy’s head, shifted down to his back.
Mark lowered the rifle. Damn it, he’d never shot a man. He sure as hell wasn’t going to start by shooting one in the back. He climbed through the rocks into the open and swung the Winchester up again.
“Hey, Kid,” he shouted.
The man whirled around, reaching for his Colt. Still Mark held his fire. For a moment neither of them moved; then Billy flashed his bucktoothed grin, took his hand from the Colt and waved.
“Hey, Mark,” he called. “Ain’t seen you for a spell. Come and jaw a bit.”
Just as though he wasn’t caught with a hot iron and another man’s calf, Mark thought in amazement. Just as though I didn’t have the drop on him. He sighted on Billy’s chest and found he couldn’t pull the trigger.
Hell. How was a man going to throw down on a buck-toothed youngster he’d ridden the trail with? The Kid had been a fine companero, whose cheerfulness and good spirits more than made up for his youth.
What in God’s name was he going to do now? He plain didn’t trust the Kid, for he remembered damn well what Billy had once told him,
‘Did you ever shoot a man?” Billy had asked one evening by the campfire.
Mark shook his head and Billy’s blue eyes had narrowed.
“You never forget the first one,” he’d said, “but if I had to, I’d do it again. Billy Bonney don’t take insults from any man alive.”
Mark said nothing. He’d heard Billy had shot a man in Arizona and maybe a couple more in Mexico before coming to work for Dolan, but that was his business. It wasn’t wise to ask many questions in the Territory.
“I was in Arizona working for this blacksmith named Cahill,” Billy had gone on. “Big man. Hardly ever see a smith that ain’t. Anyway, he made fun of me right along, and one day he called me a pimp and I had enough, so I jumped him. I didn’t have much of a chance after he got me down—he must have weighed two-fifty. He was bound and determined to beat the hell out of me, so I just up and grabbed his Colt from his holster and shot him.”
Mark stared through the sights of his Winchester at Billy. Would the Kid trail him if he made Billy free the calf and let him go? All Billy had to do was pick the right moment and Mark Halloran would be as dead as the blacksmith.
He lifted his head. Billy had stopped smiling. Make up your mind, Mark told himself.
As he began to lower the gun, hair-raising shrieks froze him in position. A rifle cracked off to the south.
“Apaches!” Billy yelled
Mark had no need to be told. A man never forgot an Apache war cry.
Billy ran to the tied calf, his knife flashed, and the freed animal struggled to its feet as Billy leaped onto his horse. Mark raced back around the rocks to where his sorrel was tied.
Mark kicked his horse into a gallop, heading south toward a flat-topped hill. Before he reached its base, Billy’s gray tore out of the cottonwoods and headed in the same direction. Mark checked Billy’s guns. Holstered. He slowed, letting the gray catch up.
More shots from behind the hill. Rifles. A pistol—a Colt .45, by the sound.
Billy grinned at Mark as they galloped up the slope. “Knew you wouldn’t shoot me,” he said.
They reined in and dismounted below the crest. Mark hesitated only a moment before handing Billy the reins of his horse. It could be a trick. Billy might throw down on him as he climbed to the top. Mark shrugged off the notion.
He thought if the brand-blotting had been reversed, Billy wouldn’t have pulled the trigger either. Not that he’d ever throw a big loop over another man’s dogie. The Judge had knocked that kind of nonsense out of him when he was a boy back in St. Louis.
Mark dropped to his knees near the summit, crawled the last few feet on his elbows, then lay flat and wiggled across the level top of the hill until he could see below.
He swore under his breath.
One canvas-topped wagon. Four mules in harness, one down.
Six mounted Mescalero Apaches circling mules and wagon, whooping and hollering. Snapping off a shot now and then. One brave used arrows. Looked to be a body slumped on the wagon seat. A puff of smoke ballooned behind the body as a Colt roared--meaning someone was still alive in there.
Mark slid back down to Billy. “Wagon. Six Apaches.” As he swung onto the sorrel, he reached for his Winchester.
“Whooee,” Billy cried, mounting his horse. “Let’s go turn those Mescaleros into good Indians.”
* * *
Tessa Nesbitt pushed back a strand of her blond hair and, raising her father’s big Colt .45, did her best to aim at the galloping Indian before she pulled the trigger.
Damn. Missed again.
She heard the crack of Ezra’s rifle from the back of the wagon. An Apache jerked backward, then slammed to the ground. The others yelled louder.
“Damn you! Damn you!” She screamed at them.
Seven-year-old Jules clutched at her dress, whimpering, trying to bury his head in her lap. She thrust him away and aimed over the body slumped across the wagon seat. Her father’s body. A bullet zinged past her, hit a metal pot with a clang.
Tessa fired. Aimed. Fired. Behind her Ezra had stopped shooting. She glanced back. No, not wounded, just taking his time aiming. He fired.
An Indian pony stumbled, pitched forward to its knees. His rider leaped off. She fired and the Apache faltered. Recovered. Jumped onto a pony behind another Apache.
“You winged him, Ezra
called. “Jolly good, Tess.”
Tessa wished she could shoot as well as her fourteen-year-old brother—something that hadn’t seemed important before.
She winced as a bullet jerked her father’s body. Bullets couldn’t hurt him. He was dead, she was certain of it. Yet she couldn’t believe it.
“Tess!” Jules’ voice quavered in terror, but she had no time to comfort her little brother.
If Jules wasn’t killed by a bullet before the end, the Indians might let him live. She’d heard the Apaches sometimes spared little children, carried them to their camps and raised them as Indians. As for herself, she’d die fighting. Make them kill her as if she were a man. No Apache was going to turn her into his squaw!
She aimed at the two braves on the one horse as they returned on the other side of the wagon. Fired. They swept past unharmed. Ezra’s rifle cracked. A pony staggered but recovered to gallop on. Amid the stink of powder she smelled the acrid scent of burning wool, glanced around, saw a thin tendril of smoke rising from the blankets on the wagon bed.
Tessa bit her lip as she eased her father’s canteen from under his body, unfastened it from his belt. She darted back and dumped the water onto the smoldering hole. Hurrying back to the front of the wagon, she checked the Colt, reached for the cartridges she’d taken from her father’s belt. Her heart sank. Only three left.
She’d been shooting too fast, too wildly. There were still five Indians. All of the bullets would have to count.
A spurt of dust to her right caught Tessa’s eye. Two horsemen were plunging down a hill. “Ezra!” she cried. “More coming. Look!” “Change places with me,” he called.
Tessa stumbled to the back of the wagon, pulling Jules with her, his hands clenched onto her skirts. Ezra passed her as he headed for the front.
“Only got two more bullets,” he muttered.
Tessa stared at an Apache galloping toward the tailboard of the wagon, knelt and snapped off a quick shot. Missed. He veered away, firing as he went. His bullet thudded into the wooden chest next to her.