Authors: William W. Johnstone
Kensington Publishing Corp.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Black was the sky and bitter the wind, but Silas Creeds felt no chill, for the wind was not colder than he and the sky no blacker than his killer's heart. Truth to tell, he was highly amused. In the dead and dreary winter of 1888, he was not in the New Mexico Territory to kill a man, but to return a runaway woman to her rightful owner.
This was a first for him, and the cause of his mirth.
From a rise studded with pines, he looked down on the Dromore ranch. Pyramids of windblown snow lay at the bases of each trunk as though the trees had dropped their drawers in preparation for a scamper down the hill. His thoughts turned to the job at hand. How does a man born to the gun treat another man's trophy woman?
Well, he could truss her up and throw her behind his saddle, Creeds decided. Or he could loop a noose around her neck and drag her after his horse.
Neither method struck him as satisfactory. He shook his head, a smile playing around the corners of his thin scar of a mouth. It required some serious thought. Why did Zebulon Moss want the treacherous little whore back anyhow? It would've been a lot simpler to put a bullet into her and have done. Serve her right.
Creeds sighed. Ah well, Zeb knew his own mind and he set store by the little baggage, so there was an end to it.
A lone rider hazing a Hereford bull toward a cattle pen near the big plantation house took his attention. The puncher showed a shaggy wing of gray hair under his hat, but the turned-up collar of his sheepskin hid his face.
Creeds grinned and slid the Winchester from the boot under his left knee. He drew a bead on the rider and had him dead to rights. A head shot, easy at that distance. “Pow!” Creeds said quietly.
The puncher rode on and Creeds shoved the rifle back into the leather. There was to be no killing on this trip. “Just bring my woman back,” Zeb had said. He was paying the money, so he got to choose the tune.
Creeds scanned the ranch again.
A big plantation house with four pillars out front, white-painted fences and corrals, a bunkhouse for seasonal punchers and the single hands, a commissary, and a row of eight neatly built cabins for the married men.
Creeds nodded. No doubt about it, those were civilized folks down there and that meant they'd be fat and sassy and easy to kill.
Set apart a ways from the other buildings was a timber structure with a V-shaped shingle roof and a low bell tower. Smoke from its iron chimney tied bows in the wind and even from where he sat his horse Creeds heard the noisy laughter of children. The building was painted red and that amused him greatly. “Well, well, well, ol' Zeb's information was correct . . . Trixie Lee is out in the boonies, teaching snot-nosed brats in a little red schoolhouse.”
That was a far cry from working the tinpans and cowboys up Santa Fe way. And an even farther cry from being Zebulon Moss's kept woman, bought and paid for.
Creeds shook his head. He had to smile. Damn, this was getting better and better. A real challenge.
He was a tall, scrawny man, dressed in the ankle-length black coat he wore summer and winter. On his head, he sported a battered silk top hat he thought became him, and a long woolen muffler in the red Royal Stuart tartan was wound twice around his turkey neck. He'd taken the scarf off a tinpan he'd shot a spell back, but he couldn't remember the exact circumstances of that killing. After a while they had a way of all running together.
Apart from the rifle under his knee, Creeds showed no other weapons. But the pockets of his coat were lined with buckskin and in each nestled a Colt double-action Lightning revolver in .38 caliber. A careful man, he'd bobbed the hammers of both guns so his draw would not be impeded.
Creeds had killed seventeen men. One he did remember was good ol' Charlie Peppers, who was reckoned by them who knew to be the fastest man with a gun south of the Picketwire.
After the fight, Creeds had taken Charlie's title and his left ear as a trophy. He'd also bedded his woman, but that ended badly when he'd had to shoot her after she came at him with a knife in her hand, crying rape.
All in all, Creeds considered himself the West's premier gunfighter, and no one cared to argue the point with him.
Silas Creeds was trespassing on Dromore range and knew men had been shot for less, but it didn't trouble him in the least. He was confident of his gun skills, and such fears were for lesser men. He rode past the big house, skirted the corral where the Hereford bull was penned up, then crossed fifty yards of open ground to the red schoolhouse.
He drew rein and studied the front of the building, a flurry of snow spinning around him. Because of the iron-gray sky the windows on either side of the door were opaque and stared back at him like lifeless eyes. Inside the kids were quiet, probably studying their ciphers, he guessed. Or was Trixie telling them about the good old days in Santa Fe?
After a while he stood in the stirrups and yelled, “Trixie Lee! Come out!”
The children's voices raised in an excited babble and Trixie hushed them into silence.
“Trixie Lee!” Creeds yelled. “Get out here! I won't tell you a second time.”
The door opened a crack and the woman's voice called out, “What do you want, Creeds?”
“Me, I want nothing, Trixie. But good ol' Zeb wants his woman back in his bed. He says he's hurting for you real bad, if you get my meaning.”
“I'm not going back,” Trixie called out. “I'm not going anywhere with you, Creeds.”
Creeds relaxed in the saddle and smiled. “Trixie, Zeb paid two hundred dollars for you, fair and square as ever was. You're his property. Now get the hell out here or I'll come in after you.”
“You heard the lady. She's not going anywhere with you.”
The gunman's head turned like a striking snake toward the handsome young man who lounged against the corner of the building. The man's sheepskin was open and he wore a belted Colt.
Creeds' yellow, reptilian eyes glowed. “Who the hell are you?”
“Me? I'm the man who's throwing you off this property.”
“Give me a name.” Under Creeds' sparse mustache, his thin lips were peeled back from his teeth. “Damn it, boy. I never did cotton to gunning a nameless man.
“Name's Shawn O'Brien. I'm co-owner of this ranch, and you're on it, Creeds, which is causing me no little distress.”
“So you've heard of me, O'Brien?”
“What did you hear?”
“That you're a tinhorn killer who'll cut any man, woman, or child in half with a shotgun for fifty dollars.”
“Hard words, O'Brien. And payment for such words don't come cheap.” A wrong-handed man, Creeds slipped his left hand into the pocket of his coat.
But suddenly he was looking into the muzzle of Shawn's Colt.
“Mister,” Shawn said, “when you bring that mitt out, either have a prayer book in it or nothing at all.”
As slow as molasses, Creeds' long-fingered hand spidered out of his pocket. “All right. You got the drop on me, O'Brien.”
“I want to talk with Trixie.”
“You've already done that, and she's not interested in anything you have to say.”
Creeds, irritated that he'd been shaded on the drop by a hick with cow crap on his boots, turned away from Shawn and yelled with a vicious edge to his voice, “Trixie! Get the hell out here!”
The triple click of Shawn's cocked Colt was an exclamation point of sound in the snow-spun morning. “Mister, I warned youâ”
But he bit off his remaining words when the schoolhouse door opened and Trixie Lee stepped outside.
Creeds grinned. “Good to see you again, Trixie. Now get up on the back of this here hoss. We got some travelin' to do.”
The girl shook her head. “I told you I'm not going anywhere with you, Silas.”
“And I told you that Zeb wants you back.”
“Zeb doesn't want me.” Her fingers touched the deep scar that ran from the corner of her left eye to her mouth. “He just can't handle the thought that a woman would even think about running out on him.”
“That doesn't signify with me, Trixie. But Zeb paid two hundred dollars for you, more than your puncher friend here makes in a year. The way I see it, he ain't getting his money's worth what with you lighting a shuck for a schoolhouse on a hick ranch an' all.”
“I'll pay him back. Tell him that. It may take me a couple years, but I'll repay every last cent of his money.”
Creeds shook his head. “He wants his woman, not the money.”
“Then he can go to hell,” Trixie spat out. “And tell him to take you with him.”
“You heard the lady,” Shawn said, stepping away from the corner of the building. “Now fork that bronc on out of here and don't even think about coming back.”
Creeds smiled and glanced at the sky. Lifting his top hat, he revealed a bald head covered with a red bandana. “Oh, I'll be back, cowboy, count on it. No man gets the drop on Silas Creeds and lives to boast of it.”
Holding the hat with his right hand inside it, he brushed off a few flakes of snow from the crown.
A moment later, a bullet slammed into the hat.