Foreword by Frank F Fiore author of “Gunfight at Black Ridge.”
A lot of people are born slightly cross-eyed. Or slightly red-faced. Or slightly ugly. Jeff Breland wasn’t one of these. Breland was born talented.
“Talent” does not rhyme with “history.” If you think it does, or even might, you are seriously ineligible to touch these books.
Breland, who flourishes and curlicues at the epic center of today’s Western writing scene, is himself so talented, as was said above. But to be dead honest about it, not a hell of a lot of Western authors have talent. Some slightly so. The brilliant bronze doors of Western history are green with neglect. On one side of the wall is the chalk legend: “Old cowboys never die.”
Cowboys come, and cowboys go, but Breland stayeth. He stays to write. He isn’t with the times; more than any other writer, he is the times.
If the Western were dis-invented tonight, a few thousand singers would be out on their cowboy hats. But not Breland.
He defies fad. He stayeth. He has known more and felt more about the stuff books are made of, the words of poets. He’s been a Loner with a Badge, and you have to be long rid of baby fat to be that fella. You can’t write the way he does until you’ve been belly to belly with Reality a few times. Let it never be said that Breland isn’t a true artist.
Frank F Fiore author of “Gunfight at Black Ridge.”
A brisk breeze rippled across the field of sage, making it impossible to concentrate his gaze in any one direction. Thirty feet away, his horse lay dead. A moment before the bullet intended for him struck his mount instead, Stone had seen the two riders just over the crest of the next rise. He had become complacent for a moment. Earlier, from the crest of a much higher rise, he had seen the two as specks in the distance. He never suspected they had seen him, but apparently they had.
Rather than continue at the same pace, which had it been maintained would still put them a significant distance ahead, they had stopped just over the next knoll. Several rock formations made for excellent points of ambush.
Stone had no intentions of moving from his position, hidden in the tall grass. At this point two things could happen: the outlaws would continue to ride, confident in the fact they had put their pursuer afoot or they could come back to determine if he was dead.
He had mixed feeling about either of these scenarios. He was now without a mount, something he desperately needed this far from civilization. Chances were that if they returned he could get the drop on them, kill them and take their mounts. Then, things hardly ever went the way planned or hoped. It was possible he could lose any further confrontation.
They could just ride on. He would be safe for the present, but have a long trek afoot. The next few minutes would tell.
Lying as still as possible, he positioned his head to look in the direction the shooters should come if they returned. With his head on the ground it was likely they would see him before he saw them. If they were smart, they’d put a bullet in him before they came too close. Hopefully, they lacked that intelligence.
Stone lay for nearly a hundred years before spying what appeared to be movement in his fringe vision. It was hard to tell with the grass shifting in the wind. Studying on the location, he realized something was moving his way. He had expected to see a rider or riders on horseback, but it seemed as if someone was approaching on foot.
Having already removed his pistol from its holster, he slowly cocked the weapon. Any sound the mechanism made was lost in the wind. He scanned to the left and to the right of the approaching image, looking for the second gunman. He saw nothing other than the single blur coming closer.
Despite not knowing the location of the second shooter, it was time to act. Although it was highly unlikely, the approaching party could be someone other than the ones intent on killing him. Once he rose, he’d only have a millionth of a second to make that decision.
Rising to sit back on his haunches, Stone caught the approaching individual by surprise. In that millionth of a second before the gunman raised his pistol, Stone had time to decide whether this was friend or foe. The pistol moving in an upward swing fairly much allowed this was foe.
Stone fired at the upper body mass, but the outlaw turned slightly as he was projecting his own weapon. As a results Stone’s bullet struck him in the left shoulder. The gunman fired as well. His shot might have been true if not for the slug tearing into his body just as he pulled the trigger. His bullet all but singed Stone’s right ear. His second shot was wild as Stone’s bullet collided with his breastbone. The man sat back as if there had been a chair and someone pulled it out from under him at the last moment. Stone’s third bullet struck him in the forehead and laid him out flat.
No sooner had he put down the first assailant, Stone was looking for the second. Dropping to one knee, he expected the other ambusher to fire even though he wasn’t to be seen. With his head just above the sage, he surveyed in a full circle, not knowing if the owlhoot might have circled behind him.
Standing and letting his pistol swing a hundred and eighty degrees for the second time, he did still didn’t see the man. Looking in the direction of the shot taking down his mount, he caught a glimpse of him. He wasn’t advancing. Instead, he was riding away with his partner’s horse in tow. Although he was out of range, nonetheless, Stone fired a couple of shots on the outside chance of scoring a hit.
Apparently, one had held the horses while the other sneaked back to determine Stones condition or to finish him off if need be. Now, seeing his partner go down, the cowardly gunman wanted nothing to do with their intended victim.
Stone watched him disappear over the next rise. Stone was less interested in the outlaw than the horse he was leading. He had hoped to not only eliminate both outlaws, but to get his hands on one, if not both, the horses. That wasn’t going to happen now.
Going to the body of the now deceased outlaw, he went through his front pockets. He found a folding knife and a few coins in his pants and a pouch of tobacco in his shirt. Rolling him over, he extracted his wallet. He hoped to find papers of some sort that would identify the dead man, but there was nothing there that would do so. He supposed that didn’t really matter, he knew who he was. He took the less than ten dollars in bills and put the wallet back in the pocket.
One down, one to go.
Although he wasn’t in any position to haul the body to the local law so as to collect whatever bounty, if any, might be on the miscreant, at least on this job he’d get his regular pay from the marshal’s office. That wasn’t much.
Going to his dead horse, he set about removing the saddle. Although the horse was rented, the saddle was not. He’d paid a significant price for it and didn’t intend to walk away and leave it. Had the saddle, like the horse, been a rental, he would never have considered the effort it took to remove the tack.
It took a while, but setting on the ground, placing both feet against the animal’s back to either side of the saddle, he was able to pull the trapped skirt and stirrup out from under the horse’s body. Flies, buzzing about the corpse, lit on his face as well.
Removing his rifle and folding the stirrups underneath and tying them with a latigo strip, he hoisted the saddle to his shoulder. He grasped the rifle with the other hand. The saddle wasn’t all that heavy at the moment, but it would get heavier and heavier before this trek was over. He headed the same way the outlaw had went.
The trail, such as it was, he as well as the outlaws had been following, would lead to the little town of Rocky Junction. How far that might be, he could only guess. From a hole in the road by the name of Fowler Creek to Rocky Junction was about twenty miles if his rudimentary map of Colorado was anywhere near correct. He supposed he had pursued the pair for roughly ten miles before the peckerwoods had shot his horse.
If that assumption was anywhere near correct, he had about a ten mile walk on his hands. As to how long that would take, again, he could only guess. Having to stop every so often and rest due to carrying the saddle, it would be longer than otherwise.
Stone had been in Pueblo when he got the wire. Perhaps, when he got an answer to his wire would better describe it. As a private investigator, almost always after concluding a job anywhere in the state of Colorado, rather than immediately return to Denver, he would check with the desk clerk at the hotel where he made his abode.
If there was a request for his services anywhere in the nearby area, he would proceed from wherever he might be. Holding a position as a Special Deputy U. S. Marshal, he would also check with them before returning home. This routine incurred a few dollars in telegraph bills, but saved a lot of downtime as well as many miles of traveling. Not having a wife or girlfriend to answer to, he could do this.
This time, checking with the marshal’s office, he was informed that a bartender in the little town of Fowler Creek had noted that a pair of customers frequenting his saloon for the past several days bore a strong resemblance to a couple of faces he’d seen displayed on the wall of the local post office. The post office there was in a little general store, but the proprietor had taken the time to display most of the flyers arriving in the mail.
One he thought he recognized was Joe “Mad Dog” Murray. The other was “Texas Dan” Broome. The clerk at the marshal’s office had admitted it might be a fruitless trip, but as of now, he was on the clock.
The minute amount of money Stone made working for the marshal service was all but insignificant compared with the fact the position came with a badge. He could use that badge whenever the need might arise and it often did. Stone was one of the top private investigators working out of Denver. When working privately, he referred to himself as an investigator. He never used the term “detective” although he was, indeed, a detective. A detective who could use his guns as well, if not better, than the most seasoned gunman. So far, he had always come out on top.
However, in the late 1880’s the term “detective” conjured up an image of an individual hired by a cattle association or private ranchers to capture or kill rustlers. More times than not, it was the latter. Often, the detective might be an outlaw of some stripe himself.
Stone had never pursued a rustler per se, unless the rustler had committed other crimes for which the victim was willing to pay the kind of money hiring Stone would entail. A portion of his friend and foes alike referred to Stone as a bounty hunter. He didn’t mind. In a broad sense of the word, he was a bounty hunter. This was due to the simple fact most of those he pursued were seasoned outlaws and carried a price on their head. Stone did quite well collecting those bounties along with whatever fee he might otherwise charge.
Stone had rented the mount in Pueblo and ridden to Fowler Creek. Looking much like a cowboy in his trail clothes, he had first visited the general store and perused the posters. He couldn’t recall ever hearing of the pair and if he had, he didn’t have a fix on their faces. He had then dropped in at the saloon in question. It hadn’t been hard to find. It was the only watering hole in the little one street town.
When Stone first entered the drinking establishment, there was only one customer in the place. Although it would have been handy, he hadn’t expected the varmints to be in the saloon at that exact time. That would have been more luck than one could have expected. A grungy looking little character who looked as if he might well serve as the town drunk was nursing a beer at the bar.
The bartender was sitting on a stool reading a newspaper. Wherever the paper was from, it wouldn’t be anything local. Although Stone had intended taking the proprietor aside and quietly inform him of his purpose in being here, it didn’t work out that way. Looking up from the paper, the man set it aside and moved to the bar. Apparently, he instantly knew Stone was a stranger in these parts and could well be the law he was expecting. In an effort to work more or less clandestinely, Stone had left the badge in his wallet for all the good it did him.
“Are you the lawman they said they’d send?”
Stone cringed. More so when the little solitary drinker seemed to come alive at hearing the bartender’s words. Taking only a few seconds to do so and leaving a good portion of the glass setting on the bar, he slipped off the stool. Waiting a few seconds longer, as if he thought he was being inconspicuous, he strolled to the door and was gone.
Having noted the drinker’s actions, this precluded the conversation with the bartender. Hurrying to the door to see which way the man went, Stone saw him turning into a doorway about three building down. Hurrying to follow the disappearing little man, Stone ran after him to discover he had entered a door with a hand drawn sign stating Hotel.
Not seeing anyone in the lobby, he ran up the stairs. At the top of the stairs and headed down the hall, he ran head on into the little peckerwood. Stopping and cowering back against a door, the man couldn’t have looked guiltier had the word been tattooed on his forehead.
“Which room are they in?” Stone demanded to know. He grasped the filthy little character by the front of his shirt and lifted him an inch or two off the floor.
Standing on his tiptoes, the little rat asked, “Wh…what you…you talking about?”
“You can tell me or I’ll break your scrawny little neck where you stand. Stone rammed the little peckerwood back against the door casing. For a moment, he considered slapping him.
“Tell me which room or you’ll die where you stand.” To further validate his threat, Stone drew his pistol and pressed the maw again the man’s nose.
The man all but fainted. Extending his left arm, his eyes crossed as he stared in horror at the gun barrel, he pointed down the hall. “204, he stammered.
Turning the little rat loose, Stone hurried to search for room 204. Finding it and knowing he would be expected, he didn’t bother to knock. With an exerted kick and the bottom of his boot, he sent the door flying in the opposite direction.
The room was empty!
Sweeping his Colt from side to side, he considered the slim possibility of them hiding under the bed. There were no closets. The window was down. With the pistol leading the way, he took a quick gander under the bed. Nothing. Unless they were invisible, they were gone. On the other hand, the old drunk could have lied.
Turning to go back into the hall, seriously entertaining the notion of laying the pistol barrel across the old reprobate’s skull, glancing to a nook at the end of the hall, he saw daylight. Moving in that direction, he discovered the nook lead to a doorway. That doorway lead to an outside stair. Logic seemed to say the outlaws had immediately fled without bothering to close the exit door behind themselves.
There was nothing in back of the building other than an outhouse. Stone doubted both would have held up there. Rather than exit at the back stairs, Stone turned to retrace his path when entering the establishment. Thinking he might see the drunk in the hall, that wasn’t the case. The man had left for parts unknown.
Now knowing the law was on their tails, the outlaws would likely leave town. Stone doubted there was any local law as such. If the need arose, a deputy would probably have to come down from the county seat. That would explain why the two had laid up here. With all the other thoughts racing through his head, he considered arresting the little rat he’d had to coerce with a threat and placing him in the local jail. Then, there probably was no local jail. If he did see him again, he might settle for laying the pistol barrel over his head.
Figuring the two would head for the livery for their mounts, he wanted to be mounted when they did. After scanning both ends of the street, he headed back to where his had tethered his horse in front of the saloon. He had just untied the reins from the hitching post when he heard the thundering of hoof beats at the far end of town. Two riders had just come out of a building he had to assume was the livery. They seemed hell bent for leather in the opposite direction. Having no idea how fast his rented horse could move now that the need had arose, he mounted and kick the animal in the side to give chase.
Now traveling on shank’s mare and the sun beating down, Stone wondered if his rudimentary map would give any indication of where he might presently be. It was a simple topographical map with only the main roads and railways denoted. Perhaps noting the elevations delineated on the map would give him a vague clue. Off to his left was a significant rise; maybe it was noted.
Figuring it was time to rest a spell, he dropped the saddle, laid the rifle aside and fumble in a saddle bag. Taking a seat on a rock, he perused the document bearing the date of 1870. It was somewhat dated, but not that much. The terrain hadn’t changed. The best he could tell, if he was reading this right, he was still five or six miles from Rocky Junction. Oh, well, at least he’d make it while it was still daylight. Resting a couple of minutes longer, folding the map, he placed it back in the saddle bag and hoisted the saddle. Reclaiming his rifle, he moved on.
A half hour later, climbing a slight knoll, looking a half mile ahead, he saw a beautiful sight. Well, it might be a beautiful sight. It depended on how frequently it was traveled. He had traveled roads for a day at the time and never incur any fellow traveler. Nonetheless, ahead, there was definitely a road. He would think at this point Rocky Junction would be to the right. If he were lucky, there would be a sign where the trail intersected the road. Even if he turned in the wrong direction, before long there should be a house where he could get directions. He also might get a cool drink of water. He might even get a bit to eat, depending on how hospitable the residents might be. If he was really, really lucky, they might have a horse for sale. No, that would be too much to even consider.
There was a sign. Rocky Junction was to his right, which would be in a southerly direction. Intersecting the road, Stone figured this would be a good place to rest. Somebody might even come along while he was doing so. Dropping the saddle, laying the rifle across it, he took a seat on a little embankment at the edge of the road. No doubt he would have to continue walking, but at least it would be easier walking on the surface of what was likely a stage road considering that it appeared to be maintained to some degree.
Fifteen minutes later, taking a sip of tepid canteen water, again, Stone hoisted the saddle and grasped the rifle. His feet hurting, having no doubt they were blistered, he headed in the direction of Rocky Junction.
About to take another break, Stone thought he heard a slight rumbling to his rear. He wasn’t sure. Pausing, he turned to look back in his wake. Still holding the rifle, he placed his hand as well as the fore stock behind his ear. There was a rumbling that sounded much like a heard of horses. He was all but sure he heard a slight jingling amidst the rumbling. What the heck could that be?
He first conjured up a picture of a freight wagon, but whatever it was moved faster than he thought a freighter would consider pushing his stock. He’d find out in a moment. Dropping the saddle to the side of the road, he laid the rifle across it and pulled out his hold card. That hold card was in the form of a Deputy U. S. Marshal’s badge in his wallet. Folding the wallet open, he held it so as to present to the passing conveyance, whatever it maybe. He would have only a few seconds to convince the driver he was one of the good guys, not someone intent on robbing him. Once spotting him afoot alongside the road, the approaching party would likely have a weapon in hand.
What Stone saw coming over the hill was an even more beautiful sight than seeing the road. With the tattoo of hoof beats, the roar of wheels and the jingle of trace chains, a stage was approaching at a fast clip. Lifting his left hand, he presented his badge with his right. He breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the driver pull back on the leads and the shotgun rider lower the double-barrel Greener. Coming abreast, the coach pulled to a stop.
“What in tarnation’s happened to you…uh, marshal? The driver leaned over to look closer at Stone’s badge. “I know you didn’t just take a whim to sell your horse.”
The shotgun messenger gave a slight chuckle at the Jehu’s remark.
“No, sir. I had it shot out from under me about five or six mile back that way.” He jerked his left thumb over his shoulder. “I sure could use a ride. You are going to Rocky Junction? What’s the charge from here to there?” Stone fingered the bills in the same wallet that carried his hold card or as he often referred to it, his rabbit in a hat.
“Charge? There ain’t no charge to a lawman out hunting yahoos who’d soon rob us as look at us. Grab his saddle, Slim, and throw it on top. We’re about half empty, marshal, so just hop in.”
Hoisting his saddle up to the shotgun messenger, Stone hung on to his rifle. He thanked them and opened the door and climbed in.
There was a middle aged lady on the forward facing seat and a couple of men in the other. Both men were dressed more or less in business attire. They might have been drummers. One was asleep, having slept through the stage stopping and the discussion he’d had with the driver. Stone figured he’d might have had a little nip beforehand. Stone, himself, had been known to take a little sip or two during a long, boring stage ride.
Nodding to the lady who offered him the barest of a smile, he did likewise to the male passenger who had remained awake. Stone settle in to gaze out the window. This trip shouldn’t take but a few minutes.
Whether or not Stone had ever been to Rocky Junction, he couldn’t recall. Hopefully, it would be big enough to have someone dealing in horse flesh. If not, at least he now knew it was on a stage run. He might wind up leaving there on a stage as well. To his way of thinking, this effort had been a failure. One the other hand, he reminded himself he had removed one outlaw from the face of the earth; “Texas Dan” Broome was now history. He supposed he could call it a half-way failure; Joe “Mad Dog” Murray was still out here. A half-ass failure would better describe it. He gave a sigh and continued gazing out the window.
Although they were still in open country, the stage slowed somewhat and seemed to pull to the left side of the road. Considering there might be a rut, a wash-out or deadfall up ahead and the stage was simply circumventing it, he didn’t give it much thought. He leaned to peer ahead when suddenly, in almost a blur, a rider leading a horse flashed by the window. The stage had pulled over to pass the lone rider.
A rider leading not just a horse, but a saddled horse! It took several moments for his brain to assimilate that fact. Could it have been? It had to be. Poking his head out the window, but careful to not let any more of his face show than was necessary, he looked back to see the rider had disappeared around the last bend. He wasn’t going to get another look, not that it was likely he could make heads or tails of the rider’s features. Besides, he only seen the man on the wanted poster in the post office in Fowler Creek. Beneath a hat, a lot of faces could look almost the same. On the other hand, he bet his saddle they’d just passed “Mad Dog” Murray.
Waiting a few moments, letting the stage get well ahead of the rider, Stone opened the door. Grasping a handhold, he leaned out and slapped the side of the coach. It only took a couple of slaps to get the driver and guard’s attention. “Let me out. I think I just saw my man. Just slow down enough for me to jump and then haul ass.” As the stage slowed, Stone had one more request. “Drop my saddle off in Rocky Junction.”
Seeing the driver nodding, Stone reached back into the coach to claim his rifle. In a blur, from the corner of his eye, the woman passenger was watching him with a look of bewilderment. Seeing an area that looked free of rocks and other obstacles, he leaped. Landing on his feet to stumble forward, he motioned for the driver to pick up speed. He did. The door swung back and forth as the stage disappeared around the next bend.
Stone knew this was going to be a precarious undertaking. Even stepping out in front of an everyday, law-abiding individual could have consequences. To make the approaching individual aware of who he was, ratcheting a shell in the chamber, he held the rifle in his right hand with his finger on the trigger, but held the wallet containing the badge in his left. He stepped behind a bush. He didn’t want to overly surprise the rider, but he didn’t want to give him a chance to run either. With that in mind, he waited until whom he figured to be “Mad Dog” Murray was well off the last rise and about thirty feet away. Projecting the badge in his upraised hand, Stone stepped to the middle of the road. “U. S. marshal,” he shouted loud enough to be heard across the short span.
The tall, rangy looking rider stopped and sat looking at him. Hair the color of dead leaves hung below his hat. Now having his subject’s attention, Stone let the fore stock rest on the hand still holding the badge. “I need you to remove your weapon with your left hand,” Stone informed the rider, noting his pistol set on his right hip.
“Just who devil do you think you are?” the rider angrily queried Stone. “You don’t have no right stopping me out here on a public road.”
“If you’re not who I suspect you of being, you can be on your way in just a few minutes,” Stone offered in reply, his finger tightening just a hair on the trigger. “In the meanwhile, it would be to your advantage to follow my instructions.” Stone’s voice was a lot calmer than his heart. This was a situation where a lot of lawmen died. That wasn’t going to happen to him. Not today.
“Just who do you think I am,” the rider asked, still not complying. With both hands on the saddle horn, the left held his reins. The right was free to draw if he was feeling lucky.
Still holding his wallet, Stone let his left hand drop and placed the wallet in his pocket. Returning the hand to the fore stock, he lifted the rifle to his shoulder and sighted down the barrel. The front bead was aligned between the subject’s eyes. The move had apparently impress on Murray that Stone was dead serious. Dropping the reins over the saddle horn, he raised both hands shoulder high.
“I didn’t tell you to raise your hands. I told you to remove your weapon with your left hand.”
“Mad Dog,” or his look alike, lowered his hands back to the saddle horn. “How do I know you’re who you say? How do I know you’re not going to shoot me after I toss down my gun? Let me take a closer look at that badge.”
Stone’s patience ended at that moment. Snugging the rifle a little tighter, he told the rider, “If that pistol is in that holster ten seconds from now I’m going to blow your head completely off and tell your mama you died of natural causes.” He meant it. The longer this went on, the more certain the man was going to try something.
The man who Stone was all but sure to be none other than Joe “Mad Dog” Murray begun moving his left hand slowly across his body and towards the pistol on his right hip. From all indications, he was going to comply. Regardless, Stone kept the sights trained between his eyes.
Suddenly, his right hand streaked to his weapon. It was in his hand when Stone fired. Seeing the outlaw fall to his left, at first Stone thought he had hit him. Apparently not. Somehow, during the standoff, Murray had slipped his boots out of the stirrups. Rather than falling, he had launched his body from atop his mount. Landing on his butt beside his horse, he was raising the weapon in Stone’s direction.
Stone might have fired in that moment if not for the animal’s jumping about. While the horse was trying to sun fish, Murray held tight to its reins. It seems until the horse was out of the picture, neither man was going to get off a shot. Although the animal couldn’t get in full sun fish mode with its head pulled down, it was kicking and jerking. It had turned about and was facing the direction from which it had come. The trailing horse, with one end of its lead rope tied to a bit ring and the other to the forward horse’s saddle, it was now pulled into the action. Backing, it was straining against the lead, drawing the rope taut. Between the two animals, Murray was trying to gain his feet while pulling on the reins to aid the effort. His mount wasn’t liking that at all.
Rather than stand there like a big ole bird making a full upright target of himself, Stone pitched his body to the far side of the road. On his belly, he leveled his rifle at where all the activity was taking place. If Murray’s mount or Murray himself ever allowed him to take a shot, he was ready.
With his pistol swinging from side to side, trying to take a shot around the horse, Murray made it to his feet. Now upright, he fired wildly over the back of the resisting animal.
Stone wasn’t above shooting a horse to save his own hide, but at this point it would serve no purpose. Sooner or later the horse was going to make enough of a lateral move to expose the outlaw. To hasten thing in that direction, Stone fired a shot striking the ground several feet from the frightened steed. Its rear end struck by bits of sand and gravel, the animal resumed kicking.
In a move that surprised Stone, on the right side of his mount, “Mad Dog” had his free hand on the saddle horn. It took a moment to realize he was about to remount from that side. The lead rope prevented his approach from the left. For a split second, Stone had a bead on Murray. About to fire, he chose to wait and see how this played out. Once Murray was mounted, he would make an even better target.
The outlaw fired one more wild shot before getting a foot in the stirrup and bringing the other over leg over the prancing animal’s back. His head held low, his face was pressed against the horse’s mane. In this positon, the taut lead rope was under his left leg. In this desperate move, his back was exposed. Stone was about to shoot him between the shoulder blades when the rearmost horse changed directions.
Charging forward, the horse having once belonged to “Texas Dan” Broome wrapped its lead around “Mad Dog’s” leg. “Mad Dog’s” horse, now with nothing blocking its path, bounded in the opposite direction. The outlaw screamed a bloodcurdling scream. Dropping his weapon, he grabbed the rope and tried to extricate his trapped limb. Watching this play out, Stone might have been amused if not for the gravity of the situation.
Laying his rifle aside and gaining his feet, Stone rushed to grasp the halter of “Texas Dan’s” horse and managed to bring the frightened animal to a standstill. Drawing his Colt, training it on Murray, he let the rope trail in his hand as he approached the outlaw. Murry was whimpering. Now having slack, he was trying to free his leg. Stone decided to help him. With Murray bent forward, Stone brought the barrel of the pistol down on the back the outlaw’s head. As he begun to fall, Stone gave him one more blow for good measure. With that, Stone grabbed the reins to his horse.
Murray slid off the left side of his mount. That unconscious effort was momentarily halted by his right foot trapped in the stirrup. When the stirrup released its grip, the outlaw crumbled to the ground. Fortunately, his mount shied away rather than trample its rider. It would have run if Stone had not been holding its reins. With Murray subdued, he needed to calm the frightened beasts.
Some thirty minutes later, Stone was riding “Texas Dan’s” horse while following behind Joe “Mad Dog” Murray. Murray wasn’t leading the way, but was more or less metaphorically pushed ahead. It was that or else. The else involved a slug from Stone’s Colt. Calming the horses, Stone had tethered the animals and removed a set of manacles from the saddle bags he’d carried for several miles. If it wouldn’t have slowed his own progress, he would have made Murray walk and gave him a dose of his own medicine.
Instead, he had cuffed Murry’s hands in front and placed him back on his horse after tying about his waist the same rope that had previously lead “Texas Dan’s horse.” It appeared Murray had held the reins to his partner’s horse for a while and then added the rope to free up one hand. A hand he might need. More so if he had to draw his weapon. The other end was now tied to Stone’s saddle horn. If Murray tried to run, he’d be jerked from the saddle. Stone had lain his own saddle across the croup of “Texas Dan’s” mount and secured it with latigo strips.
Stone realized he should have asked the stage driver if there was a jail in Rocky Junction. On the other hand, at the time, he hadn’t foreseen the need. He figured he’d have to shoot Murray and that would be the end of the story. Had it unfolded that way, he would have decided whether to continue to Rocky Junction or retrace his path to Fowler Creek. There was a good possibility he’d had chosen Fowler Creek. Now having a prisoner, he’d prefer to begin that trek early in the morning.
For the most part, Murray was cooperating, not that he had much choice. There was still the chance he could come crashing to the ground and still have to walk. And that might be with a bone or two broken. This gave Stone the opportunity to dwell on his own thoughts for the present.
It wasn’t long before they passed a house—such as it was. It was small, but built with clap board. Somebody had spent a little money. More times than not these homesteads were adobe. Stone figured that served two purposes; the settlers usually didn’t have much money and whether or not they did, they weren’t leaving much behind it they had to move away. In fact, a lot of them did. Even this house looked vacant from here.
“I need some water, Stone,” Murray announced.
Stone could use some water himself. Yes, sir, a good cold drink of well water would go mighty good about now. “Ok, Dog. Let’s just swing in here and see if these people will let us draw some from their well.”
There were no animals of any type in the yard. The doors and all the windows were closed. “Hello,” Stone shouted. “Hello, the house.”
With all the openings closed he didn’t expect an answer and he didn’t get it. Nonetheless, there was a well. “You first, Dog. Hop down.”
“Don’t call me that, lawman.”
“I thought that was your name. That’s what the poster said. Joe “Mad Dog” Murray.
“Dog” didn’t bother replying.
After they tethered their mounts to the well housing, Stone let Murry do the honors of lowering the bucket. He could do that despite both hands shackled together. Drinking his fill from the first bucket, Murray poured a portion over his head. Likely, it still hurt where Stone had tested his pistol barrel. As to be expected, the barrel had withstood the impact—Murray hadn’t fared quite as well.
Once quenching their thirst, Stone told Murray to lead the way. They were going to take a look in the windows. Peering through the dust covered panes, the house appeared to still be furnished. Whoever moved away had left their belonging. Strange, mighty strange.
“When you get out of prison about a hundred years from now, Murray, this would make you a good hideout.” Laughing, Stone thought that was funny. Murray didn’t.
They hadn’t been on the road twenty-minutes when they approached another house on the opposite side of the road. Like the first, this house also appeared vacant. “If you don’t mind, Murray, let’s ride by and take a look in the windows of this house. I don’t suppose you’re in any hurry to get to jail?”
“How long you been a peeping tom, Stone?”
Unlike Stone’s attempt at humor, they both thought this was funny. However, Stone didn’t let his prisoner know that. “I’ll let you look first, Dog, in case somebody waiting to shoot us.”
Murray had a retort. “Speaking of jails, Stone, the joke is on you. They don’t have a jail in Rocky junction.”
Stone didn’t know if the man was being truthful or just pulling his chain. “In that case, I’ll either have to chain you up or go ahead and shoot you. Either way, let’s swing by the house.”
Like the first, this house also contained furniture. Also like the first, it appeared abandoned.
Back on the road, Stone gave some thought to what his prisoner had said. He might have a problem if the town a couple of miles ahead didn’t have lodging for his prisoner. He’d face that when the time come. He started to tell Murray to hold up, he’d decided to go ahead and shoot him since there was no jail to drop him off. He decided not to. Sometimes you could pull a monkey’s chain too much.
They’d been back on the road a few minutes when an approaching rider was visible on the horizon. There was nothing unusual there. This was a public road. However, Stone would keep his eyes open.
Stone relaxed a little when he thought he saw a spot of metal on the approaching horseman’s vest. A hundred yards more proved his assumption to be true. A hundred feet away, the rider stopped and waited for them to ride abreast.
“You the one what jumped off the stage? Jeb and Ernie told me about that. Figured I better ride out and check on you. I glad to see two upright bodies. I’m getting too old to be wrangling with dead body anymore.”
“That was me. Appreciate you coming out,” Stone allowed.
“Well, who do we have here?” the much older and wizen lawman inquired as he remove his hat and ran a hand through his hair. It was solid white. He had a short beard to match it. Stone figured the man could be fifty or he could be seventy.
“I’m Deputy United States Marshal Stone out of the Denver office. This gentleman here with the dubious honor of accompanying me is one Joe “Mad Dog” Murray from who knows where, but recently out of Fowler Creek.”
“Why are you bringing him to me, Deputy Stone?”
“Well,” said Stone, dragging out the word, “I wasn’t exactly bringing him to you, ah….
“Deputy Sheriff Billy Canfield at your service, sir.” The old lawman lifted his hat. “I’m out of the Rocky Junction office. In fact, I am the office.”
Stone figured the deputy sheriff was going to collaborate Murray statement as to the lack of a jail in the little town.
“My instructions were to deliver him to the nearest local law enforcement officer.”
“I don’t want him,” Canfield put his hands up, palms forward as if refusing a gift. He was shaking his head.
“What do you mean, you don’t want him, Canfield? It’s not like he’s a birthday or Christmas present you can refuse.”
“My jail won’t hold no standing upright or sober prisoners, Stone. I don’t want him. Take him someplace else.”
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Canfield, but you don’t have much choice. If your jail won’t hold him, we’ll chain him up. You do have a pair or two of manacles, don’t you?”
The old lawman didn’t offer no replay. He appeared to accept that he would lose this argument. He sadly shook his head. “Bring him on, Uncle Sam. We’ll do something with him.”
Stone figured Canfield was smart enough to know that a county lawman didn’t argue with a federal lawman. Had Canfield known Stone was a mere Special Deputy Marshal, he might have pushed the point further.
Murray hadn’t like the outcome of this discussion either. He glanced back to give Stone a sullen look.
Given the fact there wasn’t a sufficient holding area, Stone would be heading back with Murray tomorrow. If he didn’t, he might have to explain to the marshal’s office why he left a prisoner unsecured. He’d bet the little town didn’t have a telegraph office either.
Canfield didn’t have a lot to say as he more or less took the lead rather than drop back to ride alongside his fellow lawman. After a half-mile or so, the deputy sheriff tossed a question over his shoulder. “What’s he wanted for? Is he a killer or something like that?”
Perusing the wanted poster in Fowler Creek, Stone had noted robbery and a few other things, but he couldn’t recall anything about murder. “I really don’t know, Deputy Canfield. I’d bet this horse I’m riding, which don’t belong to me anyway, he’s likely got a few murders under his belt the law may or may not know about. He’s still on a lucky streak. In fact, he really lucky today. I’m not going to charge him with attempted murder of a federal officer simply because I don’t want to waste my time going to court.”
“That was Dan what shot at you, Stone. I never fired a shot.”
“See there, Dog. That exactly what I’m talking about. I’d ride halfway across Colorado to your trial and you’d tell the jury something like that. They might even believe you. That’s why I don’t care to go to trials.” Stone thought he heard Canfield chuckle at the last remark.
Around the bend, they approached another house. Like the last two, this one also appeared abandoned. Perhaps the deputy knew the answer as to why.
“Why are all these houses abandoned, Deputy Canfield?” Stone tossed to the lead rider’s back.
Canfield drew up and turned his mount about. Waiting for Stone to draw abreast, he fell in alongside. “It’s the banshee.”
Stone wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “The what?”
“What do you mean, the banshee?”
“Exactly what I said. We gotta a banshee in these parts.”
Stone sort of thought he was catching on. “And these people left because they thought there was a banshee somewhere around here.”
“Ain’t no thought to it. There is one here. There’s more empty houses up ahead there.” The older lawman pointed down the road. It looked as if they were nearing town. The houses were closer together.
“Are you tell me you believe in that sort of thing?” Stone gave Canfield a sideways glance.
“Well, young fellow, once you’ve heard it, you’ll believe it too. And, I’ve heard it.”
“In other words, all these people heard what they thought was banshee and just left their home what looks to be lock, stock and barrel.”
“Yep, pretty much. Some of ‘em had livestock killed too.”
“How come you didn’t leave?” Stone asked, trying to keep a smile off his face.
“Well, those of us what live in town don’t figure the thing will come around a lot of folks or lights. At least it hadn’t so far. But it shore plays havoc out here in the boonies.”
“What did it sound like?”
“Sounded like a woman screaming.”
“How did you know it wasn’t a woman screaming?”
“Cause some of the people went and looked and there was nothing there. In fact, there was never nothing found where the noise came from.”
Stone figured whatever it was, it sounded like a prank a bunch of idiots or teenage boys might pull. One of them would have to be able to change his voice.
A few minutes later they were entering the one and only street of the little burg. The town set on a small rise. It appeared to be the remnants of an old mining town. It had been hastily built at the time and hadn’t been improved since. It was likely a stopover for outlaws of various stripes traveling through the area. It was also likely Canfield turned a blind eye to the varmints. On the other hand, whatever travelers stopped here wouldn’t be staying long. The lawman probably seen no reason to confront them. Let someone else deal with them down the road.
They passed what looked to be a general store and a blacksmith shop. A building to the back of the blacksmith shop probably served as the town livery. Across the street was a feed store and a couple other indiscernible businesses. It was hard to tell if they were in business or not since the doors were closed. Stone would bet they were empty.
Canfield lead them about halfway down the street to an old edifice on the left side of the road. It was setting on cinder blocks and built of heavy planking. Over the door was a sign stating Sheriff’s Office. Dismounting and tying his horse to the rail, he ambled up the wooden steps while fumbling in his pocket for the key.
“In answer to your question, Uncle Sam, I got something better than manacles. I hadn’t never used it, but I’m sure it’ll work for this occasion,” Canfield allowed as he removed the pad lock from the hasp.
Stone didn’t ask what that might be. He’d find out shortly.
Canfield was inside before Stone dismounted and got Mad Dog off his horse. Tethering both animals to the hitching rail, he let his prisoner lead the way. By the time they were in the building, Canfield had lighted a kerosene lamp, which he held in his hand. In the center of the back wall was a door leading to another room. Canfield opened the door and stepped inside.
This backroom, with the redolence of an outhouse, seemed to be what Canfield used for a lockup. He already had one customer sleeping on the floor. Giving the shabbily dressed individual a kick against his well-worn laced up work boots, Canfield informed him, “Time to wake up Willie. Time to go home.”
Willie wasn’t in any hurry. Assessing the face and the kerosene lamp hovering above him, Willie stared at the deputy a moment before closing his eyes again. Canfield kicked his feet again. “Get the hell up, Willie, before I throw you out!”
“Damn, sheriff, you gonna throw me out this time of day? I was sleeping good. I was having a nice dream before you come in here kicking me like I was a dog.”
“Willie, if you don’t get the hell out of here it won’t be yore feet I kick the next time.”
Finally having Willie convinced and watching what was probably one of the town drunks achieve his feet and stumble as far as the front room, Canfield turned to shine the lamp against the back wall. About waist high and three feet apart, two length of chain about six feet in length came out of the wall. At the end of the chain were ankle bracelets.
“I ain’t never had no desperadoes in here before, so I’ve never had cause to use this particular means of detainment, but I figure it’ll work for our guest.”
Stone studied the lengths of chains trying to evaluate whether they would serve the purpose. For a moment he wanted to say something derogatory, but after giving it some thought, he supposed it would have to do. He remembered what he had earlier meant to ask the deputy.
“You got a telegraph office here, Canfield.”
Canfield gave a scoff. “Even as modern as we might otherwise seem, that’s one thing we don’t have. Mail rider comes through here, though. You can usually get an answer to any question you might have in about a week.”
“What if you ever needed backup? Needed another deputy to help you?”
Canfield gave another scoff and canted his head. “It’s always been my best bet not to get myself in a situation where I needed help.”
That would encourage a lawman to turn a blind eye, Stone thought.
An hour later Canfield and Stone had tethered both Murray’s ankle to the double chains and left him to his own devices along with a chamber pot. The room smelt so bad Stone was dreading having to reenter it. Murray hadn’t complained about the chains as much as he had about the darkness. Stone told him to go to sleep and the darkness wouldn’t bother him. They would be leaving early in the morning.
Stone had accompanied the deputy sheriff to the little eatery that Canfield swore served a fantastic meal. On the walk over, Stone asked Canfield if he had any help in the form of someone spending the night at the jail.
Canfield laughed and said he thought he did. At least for the night. Most likely, there would be a deputy marshal sleeping in the front room if he wanted to be absolutely sure he had a prisoner in the morning. He, himself, had a nice, chubby little wife whom he was going to be snuggled up with tonight.
That, too, was about what Stone figured.
Although Canfield didn’t offer to pay the thirty-five cents for Stone’s supper, he did offer to treat him to a beer at the saloon. That wasn’t a bad offer. Stone needed a beer or two as much as he had needed supper and he had been ravenous. Before they left, Stone asked the waitress to wrap up a couple of pieces of chicken and a couple biscuits. He dropped them off to his prisoner. Apparently, Murray was hungry, he stopped eating long enough to ask Stone to leave the door open. He wasn’t going nowhere and he needed a little light to eat. Stone figured he was right and left the door to the makeshift cell open. Canfield noted this, but didn’t have anything to say.
It seemed the saloon did a nice a business considering the town in which it was located. Most of the small crowd appeared to be cowboys, but there were a few whose clothing didn’t denote what they did. There was a couple by themselves at the far end of the bar. Their dusty clothes said they might have ridden for a while. They gave no indication of having any interest in either of the lawmen, but experience had taught they were the type to keep an eye on. Cowboys hardly every started trouble with anyone other than their own. A couple of cowhands acknowledged Canfield’s presence, addressing him by name. They didn’t inquire as to who his friend might be. More than likely, they didn’t care.
As good as his word, Canfield laid a dime on the bar for two beers after exchanging pleasantries with the bartender. Needless to say, the beers weren’t savored, but served to cut the dust and settle the nerves. Stone figured he’d savor the next whether Canfield bought or not. Reaching the bottom of the glasses, Stone was the one to voluntarily forfeit the dime.
“Let take these to a table, Stone. My old legs get kind of tired of standing,” Canfield suggested.
Stone saw no reason to object.
Finding a back table, Stone again survey the room. The two looking as if they’d spent a week on horseback, gave them a quick glance. Of course, that was sort of to be expected. Badges stood out in any crowd. More so in a saloon crowd.
“Tell me a little bit more about your banshee, Canfield. You’ve got my curiosity wound tighter than a cheap watch. Is there anybody who stands to gain by these people moving out?” Stone didn’t usually dwell on idiotic things, but this one had his attention.
“Well, actually it ain’t my banshee. If it were, I’d send it up to Denver for you fellows up there to enjoy.”
Stone had to give that statement the benefit of a chuckle.
“Actually, I don’t know if anybody really benefits, but Big John Ramsey has been buying the places from those what wanted to leave. I don’t know if that benefited anybody.”
“Who is Big John Ramsey?” Stone felt compelled to ask.
“Big John is the one what owns what I suppose is one of the biggest ranches in the area.”
“Does his property border these homesteads?”
Canfield thought on that a while. “Now that you mention it, I suppose it does. Yeah, now that you mention it that strip of road was once what Ramsey considered his property. Once the government came in and took a big strip of that land to build the road, they gave what remained of the right away to homesteaders. I’ve heard several of the cowboys discussing the situation here in the saloon. Taking that strip of land really screwed up Big John’s moving his cattle from place to place.”
“And with the homesteaders trying to farm the land and putting up fences, Big John can’t easily move his cattle from range to range,” Stone offered as an opinion.
Canfield agreed that was probably the case.
“Let me ask another question,” Stone put to the deputy sheriff. “Are there any more homesteader who’s heard the banshee, but didn’t move? I suppose after hearing whatever they hear, they usually report it to you.”
“You’re right there. I spent a large portion of the night on several occasions out there at their places listening to that thing.”
“Could you give me a list of those who’ve heard the thing and direction to their house. I’d like to try to solve your little mystery.”
“You have to be there at night.”
“It still early. It’s not dark yet.”
“When we get through with these beers we’ll go to my office so I can get some paper. I’ll give you the names as well as directions. I’ll also give you a front door key.”
Before the lawmen finished their beers, the pair of dusty riders moved away from the bar and slowly strolled out. For the first time, Stone noted the low-slung pistols with tie downs on their thighs. Now that they were standing and moving in what might be considered an arrogant stride with their pistol butts projected away for their bodies in a fast-draw mode, they couldn’t have look more like trouble had they tried. Stone suddenly got an uneasy feeling. For some reason, he thought of his prisoner in what barely served as a jail.
“You know them?” Stone asked, tilting his head toward the departing gunslingers.
“Never seen ‘em before. They’re probably here to work for John Ramsey.”
“Ramsey hire a lot of characters like them?”
“From time to time.”
Although he wouldn’t get the information from Canfield, there was something strange about this Big John Ramsey.
While they nursed their beers Canfield told how he had come to be the only representative here of the main sheriff’s office, which was miles away. It wasn’t surprising to learn he and his wife had first come here hoping to get in on the mining boom. When the gold played out, he might have moved on had not the sheriff been looking for someone to fill the position he now held. He had served as a deputy before coming to the mine fields, which made him a logical choice.
Finishing his beer and standing, Stone announced he needed to check on his prisoner. Canfield gave him a studying look, but didn’t argue. Finishing his beer as well, they headed back to the jail.
It was good dark when Stone rode up in front of the little house belonging to Nick Wale and his family. He could see a kerosene lamp burning behind a flimsy curtain from where he had chosen to stop. In this part of the country, a fellow didn’t walk right up to a house and announce his presence. It was always a good idea to maintain a distance. That served two purposes. First, it showed respect for the occupants and didn’t appear nearly as encroaching. Second, if the homeowner was just plain out unfriendly, antisocial or paranoid, it gave the caller a little more room to run.
Wale was neither friendly nor unfriendly. He was puzzled, however, as to why a rider would approach his house this time of day. Or night, for that matter. He moved a little more toward the friendly side after Stone told him who he was and why he was here.
“I know it might seem strange, Mr. Wale, but I deal with a lot of bad people. The ones I despise the most is the bullies. Whoever is doing this is a bully.”
“You don’t think it is actually an evil spirit, Mr. Stone. No disrespect, but you haven’t heard it. Deputy Canfield heard it. He was sure it was a banshee. Like you, I have my doubts. I guess that’s why I’m still here.”
Nick Wale appeared about thirty-five. He was just shy of six-feet and his sandy hair was thinning. His skin was as brown as an Indian from a life of working in the fields. Stone was surprised to learn the man and his family had moved here from Missouri. He had thought they might be immigrants from some old country. Asked about this, Wale said that a lot of his neighbors had been from Ireland. That might have accounted for their superstition. The Irish, more so the uneducated, were as superstitious as they came.
“Let me ask you a question, Mr. Wale. Do you know a Big John Ramsey?”
The look on Wale’s face answered the question. He knew the man.
“Yes, I do.”
“Has he ever tried to buy you place?”
“Several times. For a fraction of what it is worth.”
Stone studied on that a moment before asking, “How often do you hear this banshee?
“Almost every night. It comes from that big plateau to our rear.” Wale lifted a hand to point in the direction to which he was referring.
“Does Ramsey have any women folks out at his place.”
“From what I hear, he has a daughter. She works cattle just like the hands, some people say. His wife died a few years back. That was before we moved here.”
“What time of the night do you usually hear this thing?”
“It’s usually late. Ten, eleven o’clock.”
“I got a notion, Mr. Wale. I’m going to need your help.”
Less than an hour later, Stone jumped down from the buckboard and gave Wale a wave. As the wagon made a wide swing to turn back the way it came, Stone had already started up a game trail that lead to the top of the plateau.
Now that he was closer, there seem to be a lower shelf setting twenty feet or so below the top. He might have stopped there, but he wanted to be on the upper level so as to observer anyone or anything approaching. More so a banshee. Now out here by his lonesome in the dark of night and looking for an evil spirit, Stone himself felt sort of spooked. He chuckled to himself despite having a slight tingling sensation move over his body.
Reaching the top, he moved toward the backside of the rock formation. Any human—or banshee, would likely come from that direction. Again, he amused himself with the thought that he might not see a banshee. They might be invisible.
Finding a little rocky enclave so as not to be outlined in the moonlight should something approach, he took a seat with his back against a rock. If the banshee or whatever was pretending to be a banshee approached on horseback, he should hear the sound of hoofs. He didn’t think they would walk. Not through this terrain at night. They’d also need a fast getaway. He wanted to smoke, but reframed. It had been too hard a job climbing up here to blow it now with the flame of a match or the glow of a cigar.
Now actually stopped and idle for the first time today, Stone felt a weariness creep up on him. It was as if the sensation had caught up with him now that he was no longer running. Assuring himself he’d hear whatever he was looking for, he let his head loll back and rest against the boulder. He closed his eyes for just a moment. Without realizing he was doing so, he let himself drift away. Shortly, he was asleep.
Stone begun to surface from a deep, vast void. He was surfacing toward a noise, a horrible noise. Reaching the surface, a blood curling sound was emanating around him. Shaking the cobwebs from his brain, he realized where he was and why he was here. He was here to determine the origin of the very sound that was sending a tingling sensation over his body.
Now awake, but groggy, Stone gained his feet. Although he surveyed his surroundings in a full circle, he had no hope of seeing what made the sound. In fact, the noise seemed to come from under him. Somewhere beneath the surface.
Despite his assumption that the screams emanated beneath his feet, it seemed more prevalent toward what he thought of as the front of the plateau, the area facing not only the road, but Nick Wale’s house and those homesteads now abandoned. With that thought, Stone retraced his steps until coming to what he had noted as a shelf below the crest. Several bushes lined the outer edge of the shelf. The shelf afforded a narrow passage with a good drop of forty feet or so. However, several bushes line the outer edge somewhat like a guardrail. They would make good handholds as well.
Watching his step, Stone left the game trail and move alone the ledge. A fall here could kill a man. If it didn’t kill him, all the broken bones and pain might make him wish he was dead. Coming to the first bush, he grasped it to steady himself.
The screaming had ceased for the last few seconds and Stone considered the possibility of the person or thing moving away and disappearing into the night. Just as he was getting seriously worried about that possibility, it came again. It seemed to have emanated just ahead and on his right. He just now realized it had a reverberation sound to it as if in a theater or music hall. Or in a courtroom. He had also heard this same effect when, as a kid, he and other boys would lean over a well housing and project their voices down the well.
Easing forward a few more feet, peering around one of the larger bushes, he saw what appeared to be a depression in the side of the rock-face. In the moonlight he couldn’t tell how far it extended into the rocky surface, but he’d bet it was a cave. How long or how big it became was still a mystery at this point. Nonetheless, he’d bet a good horse whoever or whatever created this horrendous utterance was in a cave. That would also account for the reverberation and the loudness. We’re getting somewhere now, he thought.
Moving within a few feet of what, in the lack of light, was more or less a darken area in the rocky mass, he stopped to ponder this situation. He wasn’t about to step into the cave to face who knew what while backlit by moon glow. Sooner or later, they or it would come out. On the other hand, he didn’t want to wait all night for it to do so.
Not wanting his presence known for obvious reason, he remained as quite as possible while he thought on it. If he had a resin filled pine knot, he’d light it and toss it in the opening. If they or it didn’t come out, at least he could see inside the cave. He didn’t have anything of the sort. He was just going to have to wait.
Leaning with his back to the rock, he scanned out over the terrain from this elevated point. He could see Nick Wale’s house. Through a window, he could see a lamp still flickering. It was likely Nick would wait up for a while in hopes of learning what Stone had found. Or what might have found Stone. A way off, he could see a few other lamps flickering.
He heard movement. Whatever was in the cave was stirring. In fact, it seemed to be moving toward the opening. Stone drew his Colt and let it hang by his side. A few seconds later, a head, a human head emerged. Having to slump forward in order to duck under the low opening, the head and shoulders were the first to appear.
Stone didn’t wait for the rest of the body. Bringing the Colt in an upward swing, he brought it down on the emerging head. It sounded like an axe chopping into a piece of timber. The rest of the body fell through the opening. Stone quickly grabbed an arm to prevent the individual from toppling over the edge. As he eased the banshee sounding varmint to the ground, he noted how light the body felt, thinking this was a very small man.
Only after the unconscious individual was sprawled on the shelf and moonlight illuminated the face and frontal area while hair spilled to touch its shoulders, did Stone realized he had just waylaid a woman.
Stone had never before seen a prisoner so happy to be leaving one cell in route to another, but Murray was more than anxious to be on his way. Stone was as well after spending a restless night on a pallet over a hardwood floor. The ground would have been softer. Before they left, Canfield made Murray empty his chamber pot, following the varmint to the outhouse with a double-bore Greener.
After Stone declined his offer to join him for breakfast, Canfield said that if he’d give him the money, he’d go in the diner and have them wrap up some biscuits and bacon so they could eat on the trail. Stone said that sounded like a winner. After giving the deputy sheriff several coins, Stone tied the rope around Murray’s waist and ordered him to mount. Mounting himself, he told Murray to lead the way to the diner.
After a few minutes wait, Canfield reappeared on the boardwalk with a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string. Taking the package and his change, Stone told Canfield, “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about your banshee anymore, Deputy.”
“Why you say that?” Canfield offered a puzzled look.
“Just a wild guess,” Stone smiled to allow. He told Murray to head out. Before reaching the edge of town, Stone glanced back. Canfield was scratching his head.
Last night, Stone hadn’t been quite sure what to do with the unconscious female, who under closer observation appeared to be a girl. After giving it some thought, he figured there wasn’t a law against what she was doing. He supposed most anyone had the right to crawl in a cave and scream like a banshee if they were so inclined.
Having given her a really good wallop and figuring she would be out for a while, he threw her over his shoulder. During his pondering, he had spotted her mount at the bottom of the game trail. Taking his time and making sure he kept his balance coming off the shelf, he descended to the bottom of the plateau.
By the time he had managed to get her in the saddle, she was coming around. He figured at this point she should be able to hold onto the reins. With that thought, he slapped the horse on the rump, hoping it would return home.
As the tattoo of hoof beats was slowly fading, he headed back to Nick Wale’s house to claim his own horse.
Stone and Murray were only a couple of miles out of town when they heard riders coming. Rather than from down the road, the hoof beats seemed to come from the left, somewhere in the direction Stone supposed one would find Big John Ramsey’ ranch. Just to be on the safe side, he drew his Colt and told Murray to move behind him. Murray offer no argument. He seemed to be concerned with the approaching cacophony as well. At the pace the riders were moving, they had business to attend and it may not be friendly.
When the riders came into sight, Stone recognized them as the two gunslingers from the saloon. They reached the road about a hundred feet ahead of Stone and his prisoner. Once on the right-of-way, they brought their mounts momentarily to a halt. Turning in Stone’s direction, they walked the horses toward him.
Twenty feet away, they stopped. The taller of the two, a big eared fellow with a black hat, chose to be the spokesman. “You’re that federal marshal, ain’t you? I guess that sounds like a silly question seeing you got a prisoner and all. I guess he’s your prisoner unless ya’ll into something mighty strange.”
The gunman’s companion, a chunky man with a graying beard, chuckled at the remark. Laughing, he re-seated his Colorado Crush hat and gave Stone a threatening look.
“I guess you got me there, fellows. What can I do for ya’ll this morning?” His forearms across the saddle horn, he ratcheted back the hammer of the Colt.
“Now that not very neighborly, drawing a gun on a couple of fellow who just want to talk,” the spokesman allowed.
“What would you like to talk about?” Stone asked, not bothering to pretend he wouldn’t shoot them in a heartbeat.
“We’re thinking, but more important, Mr. Ramsey is thinking you’re the one what laid a pistol across his daughter’s head last night.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about. You got the wrong fellow. I think it would be best if you two turned around and went back the way you come. I don’t know Mr. Ramsey or his daughter.”
“I think you do,” the taller gunman said, “and, Big John wants some restitution.”
“Since I don’t seem able to convince you otherwise, what kind of restitution does Big John want?”
“He wants your hide nailed to the wall.”
Stone canted his head and observed both men, expecting them to draw any second. His finger tightened on the trigger.
“Well, Mr. Marshal, with you being so unfriendly and all, I guess it won’t be today. We gonna leave you be, since you seem to have the drop on us. I guess Big John will have to send somebody else at some other time.” He tilted his hat to indicate for his partner to follow as he turned his mount in the other direction.
The shorter man had no sooner turned than his companion drew his weapon and hipped around in the saddle. Stone had been prepared. As soon as the two appeared relenting and turned about, Stone had brought up his weapon and trained it at the tall man’s back. Firing before the gunman could get off a shot, he hit him somewhere in the upper torso. As the man was falling, he discharged his weapon harmlessly into the ground. Stone immediately turned the weapon on the shorter man.
Facing Stone’s weapon, the sawed-off varmint ducked. Stone’s first shot missed. The second shot must have glazed him. He showed some reaction, but continued to bring up his weapon, which he’d been able to pull from the holster even while dodging bullets.
He fired two shots at Stone in rapid succession. Hurriedly fired, both missed. Rather than continue firing, the gunman chose to make a run for it.
Emptying his pistol without scoring a hit, Stone drew his rifle from the boot. The outlaw was a good hundred feet away and approximately where the pair had entered the road. Rather than turn and retrace his path, he barreled straight ahead. Raising the bead just a little above the fleeing outlaws head, the slug took him between the shoulder blades. As his mount continued to run, he toppled from the saddle.
Just to ensure he had no more trouble with the tall gunman who now lay on the road twenty feet away, Stone shot him between the eyes as he passed on his way to do the same with the one down the road. Glancing to his rear, Murray was hunched over his horse’s neck. He had managed to make as small a target of himself as possible during the melee.
Charging forward, the horse having once belonged to â€œTexas Danâ€ Broome wrapped its lead around â€œMad Dogâ€™sâ€ leg. â€œMad Dogâ€™sâ€ horse, now with nothing blocking its path, bounded in the opposite direction. The outlaw screamed a bloodcurdling scream. Dropping his weapon, he grabbed the rope and tried to extricate his trapped limb. Watching this play out, Stone might have been amused if not for the gravity of the situation. Laying his rifle aside and gaining his feet, Stone rushed to grasp the halter of â€œTexas Danâ€™sâ€ horse and managed to bring the frightened animal to a standstill. Drawing his Colt, training it on Murray, he let the rope trail in his hand as he approached the outlaw. Murry was whimpering. Now having slack, he was trying to free his leg. Stone decided to help him. With Murray bent forward, Stone brought the barrel of the pistol down on the back the outlawâ€™s head. As he begun to fall, Stone gave him one more blow for good measure. With that, Stone grabbed the reins to his horse. In pursuit of two outlaws who flee just a Stone is about to take them into custody, they shoot his horse. One outlaw makes the mistake of dropping back to see if they have also cleaned Stoneâ€™s clock. Not hardly. Killing that one, Stone is afoot as he trails the remaining one. Once finally taking that one into custody, he heads to the nearest town with hopes of depositing the varmint with the local law. Not only does the town not have an adequate jail, it also has a banshee screaming in the night and frightening homesteaders away. The local law doesnâ€™t want to take the outlaw, but finally relents and allows Stone to chain his prisoner. With his prisoner secure, Stone set out to find the banshee.