Authors: William W. Johnstone
Shawn O'Brien put on his hat, then washed, dressed, and shaved in the chill dawn light. The fire had burned down and was a pile of cold gray ashes. The windowpanes were etched with ferns of frost and outside, snow flurried in the street, hurried along by an icy wind blowing off the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. The black morning promised a blacker day.
Shawn punched the empty shells from his Colt, reloaded then buckled his gun belt around his hips. He shrugged into his sheepskin, left the room, and headed downstairs in search of coffee and breakfast.
At this early hour there were only a few people in the dining room, but the killing of Lou Tabard had created a stir and all eyes were on the tall, slim young man in shotgun chaps and sheepskin whose Mexican spurs chimed as he found a table and sat down.
Shawn met stares with a stare and his fellow diners quickly dropped their eyes and suddenly found the food on their plates to be of the greatest interest.
“What can I get you, cowboy?” the waitress, a plump, motherly woman with the endlessly suffering expression of people with sore feet, asked.
“Coffee, please, ma'am,” Shawn said, smiling.
“You've been raised right, young feller,” the woman said. “You hungry?”
To his surprise, Shawn realized he was. Luther Ironside always said that a killing ruined a man's appetite, but he was having the opposite reaction.
Before he could give her his order, the waitress said, “How about steak and eggs? It's the only thing they can halfway cook right in this dump.”
“Sounds good to me,” Shawn said.
The woman waddled away and returned a few moments later with a coffeepot. The coffee was hot, strong, and bitter, just the way Shawn liked it. The food, when it came, passed muster as edible.
He lingered over coffee and his first cigar of the morning, reluctant to leave the warmth of the dining room, where a large log fire burned. His attention was drawn to a woman who stepped into the room and hesitantly looked around, as though looking for someone. She wore a hooded cloak with a sprinkling of snow on the shoulders and top of the hood that almost completely covered her face.
The woman turned in Shawn's direction and their eyes met. Looking at her face, he realized she was a young, pretty brunette, her cheeks rouged by the outside cold.
The girl made up her mind about something and walked directly in Shawn's direction. Always keen to meet a pretty woman, he rose to his feet and the girl said, “Mr. O'Brien?”
“Yes I am, but you can call me Shawn.”
“May I sit?”
Shawn stepped around the table and pulled out a chair for the woman. After she was seated, he regained his own chair and said, “What can I do for you?”
“I shouldn't be here,” the woman said, glancing over her shoulder. She still had the hood of her cloak pulled over her head.
“I'd say that makes two of us.” Shawn smiled.
“My name is Minnie Dennett and I'm a friend . . . was a friend . . . of Trixie Lee.”
“Do you know where she is?”
“I'm not sure, but I think so.”
“No, thank you.”
Shawn waited to let Minnie think about what she had to tell him. Her eyes were brown, worried.
Finally the woman said, “I work for Zeb Moss at the Lucky Lady saloon.”
“Something like that.”
“Go on, Minnie.”
“There's a cellar at the rear of the saloon. It's accessed by a trapdoor on the floor. Zeb stores his beer barrels in there to keep the beer cool.”
Then, anticipating what Minnie would say next, Shawn said, “And that's where JulâTrixie is?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“But you don't know so.”
“I believe I heard a woman's voice down there, talking to Zeb. It might have been Trixie's voice, but I'm not sure.”
“How the hell do I find out? The saloon never closes.”
“That's why I came to talk to you this morning. The Lucky Lady will close early tonight to let carpenters work on the floor behind the bar. Stuff spills back there and some of the floorboards are rotted.”
“Will the carpenters be there all night?”
“No. I heard Zeb say that he wants the job done by midnight. Then he told the bartenders they should open up tomorrow morning at seven.”
“That's enough time for me to get in there and find Trixie.”
“Yes. I mean, if she's who I heard.”
“I'd bet the farm on it, Minnie.”
The woman nodded, but said nothing more. After a lengthy silence she said, “The saloon only has one back door. I'll try to leave it open for you. If I can't, you'll need to find another way in.”
“I'll find a way,” Shawn said.
Minnie rose to her feet. “I must go now. I can't risk being seen with you.” Then, after a moment's hesitation, she added, “Zeb Moss plans to kill you, Mr. O'Brien.”
“I figured that when two of his guns tried it last night.”
The woman nodded. “Rance Bohan is a dangerous man and now he hates you. All of Zeb's hired gunmen are dangerous.”
“I'll make sure to step around them,” Shawn said, smiling.
“Good luck, Mr. O'Brien.” Then Minnie was gone, walking quickly across the dining room to the door.
The clock tower in the plaza struck one as Shawn stepped out of the hotel into the night. A few flakes of snow drifted in the icy air, and his breath smoked as he crossed the empty street to the alley running between the Lucky Lady and the general store next door.
Stepping into the alley, he smelled the rawness of the night and the dank odor of wet mud and ancient vomit. He made his way carefully, but still his boots hit empty bottles that clanked and rolled, alarming the rats that scuttled along the baseboards of the saloon. A mist hung in the air, gray as a ghost.
At the rear door of the saloon, Shawn stood still and listened in the silence. No sound came from inside, though earlier hammers had pounded and saws rasped so loudly he'd heard the racket from his hotel room.
He reached out a gloved hand, turned the door handle, and gave a little push. The door creaked open. A drift of mist entered into the saloon and he followed it inside, stopping immediately, trapped by darkness. After a few moments he slid one tentative foot ahead of him, then another, like a man crossing a frozen pond.
A spittoon bounced away from Shawn's booted toe and clattered and gonged as it tumbled across the wood floor. He froze and held his breath, waiting for . . . he didn't know for what. Voices, yells, running feet, gunshots . . . maybe any of those.
But all he heard was silence and the slow
tick . . . tick . . . tick
of the railroad clock above the bar.
After Shawn's thudding heart settled and he could breathe normally again, he made his way carefully across the floor. Disoriented, he hoped he was headed in the right direction. What he needed was a lamp. Better to take the chance on being seen than fumbling around in the dark.
And suddenly there was light.
To Shawn's left, Zeb Moss turned up the wick of an oil lamp, illuminating Rance Bohan and two other hardcases lined up in front of the bar. All four men grinned at him, the muzzles of their shotguns aimed right at his belly.
“Don't even think about it, O'Brien,” Moss said. “We'll cut you in half before you can clear leather.”
Shawn let his right hand drop from his holstered Colt. “Minnie.” The name was like bitter gall on his tongue.
“She told you she works for me, O'Brien,” Moss said. “What did you expect? You're not the first man to let a pretty face make a fool of him.”
“Damn. I should've known,” Shawn grumbled, playing along.
“Yes, you should've. Now unbuckle the gun belt, let it drop, and kick it over here.”
Shawn did as he was told, then Moss said, “Since you're so all-fired determined to find Trixie, I'm going to oblige you.” He nodded toward the rear of the saloon. “Walk that way, real slow and easy.”
Shawn knew he couldn't save his life by bluster and threats of the vengeful wrath of Dromore. Men like Moss were savvy, hard as nails, and afraid of nothing.
He walked slow and easy.
When he reached the stage, Moss ordered Shawn to stop and looked at his men at the bar. “If he tries a break or makes a fancy move, gun him.”
“Looking forward to it, boss,” Rance Bohan said, grinning at Shawn with teeth too perfect to be anything but store bought.
Moss walked behind the stage and after a moment yelled, “Bring him here, boys.”
A shotgun butt slammed into his back, urging Shawn in the right direction. When he joined Moss again, the man was holding the trapdoor open. “Hey, Trixie!” he yelled. “Here's a friend of yours come to visit for a spell!”
Moss nodded to the opening in the floor and again Shawn was prodded until he stood on the edge of the opening, a rectangle of blackness just beyond his toes.
“Comin' down, Trixie!” Moss yelled.
He pushed Shawn hard in the small of the back. Unable to keep his balance, Shawn fell into the dark void. The last words he heard before the trapdoor slammed shut were Moss's shouted, “
Vaya con Dios, amigo
Shawn O'Brien hit every hard, timber step on the way downâand there were a dozen of them.
He cartwheeled, all arms and legs, thumping, bouncing, first his back hitting, then his front, then his head . . . then his back again.
Finally he thumped onto the floor, sprawled, and lay still.
“Shawn, are you all right?” The voice came from a long way off, at the far end of a tunnel.
“Shawn, speak to me.”
His eyes fluttered open and he looked into Julia's concerned face, lit by the dim light of an oil lamp. “Damn, those steps are hard. If I ever find the man who built them, I'll shoot him.”
“Can you move?” the woman said. “Do you have any broken bones?”
Shawn's head throbbed and his brain seemed as though it had ground to a halt. He became conscious of a sharp pain at the top of his head and when he investigated, his fingers came away bloody.
Slowly, painfully, he rose to a sitting position and groaned. “God, I feel like someone just got after me with a bois d'arc fence post.”
“What happened?” Julia asked in concern.
“Zeb Moss threw me down the stairs.” Shawn tried to smile. “Now he owes me.”
“Why are you here?”
“I've come to take you home, Julia,” Shawn answered.
He rose to his feet and stretched, trying to work out the kinks, a movement that caused him so much pain he regretted it instantly and groaned. “Hell, I shouldn't have done that.”
Julia shook her head. “You can't take me home, Shawn. Not ever. It's way too late for that now.”
“I know this sounds strange coming from a man locked in a beer cellar by a bunch of shotgun-toting hardcases,” Shawn said. “But I'll find a way.”
“There is no way.” Julia's eyes were in shadow. “I'm being sold into slavery. Zeb Moss told me that.”
Shawn's first reaction was to laugh, but he managed to keep a straight face. “Julia, slavery ended with the War Between the States, remember?”
“Not in Africa and the Arab countries. Zeb Moss says that's where I'm headed, me and other women.”
Suddenly it was not a laughing matter. “How does he plan to get you there?”
“We'll be picked up on the Texas coast by an Arab ship, Zeb says, and taken to a place off the African mainland called Zanzibar where there are slave markets.”
“When is he moving you out of here?”
“I don't know. Soon, I think.”
Shawn hurt all over, but he tried to ignore the pain and think. Finally, coming up with little, he could say only, “We've got to get out of here.”
“Shawn, that's impossible. All you can do now is to try to save yourself.”
“That might be pretty impossible, too, the way the hard times have come down recently.” He picked up the lamp and took Julia by the arm to the rickety table and chairs near her cot.
After the woman sat, he said, “All right, I think I might have figured something.” He saw hope flash briefly in Julia's eyes. “When do they bring you food and water?”
“They've brought nothing so far.”
“I'm sure they will. If what you've told me is true and not just Moss spinning a windy to scare you, he must consider you a valuable commodity and he won't let you starve.”
“I know what you're planning, Shawn, and it won't work. Even if you overcome the man, or men, who bring us food, you still have to get up the stairs and into the saloon. Zeb or one of his gunmen will kill you for sure.”
“A body's got to try.” Shawn sat in silence for a few moments, then said, “The saloon is still closed. I wonder if there's a guard?”
“Sure to be. I don't think Zeb would leave us alone.”
“He might figure a locked trapdoor is enough.”
“No, I guess I wouldn't.”
“Then there's your answer.”
“Well, guard or not, I'm going to give it a whirl.” Shawn stretched again, gauging the extent of his hurt, then reached into his pocket and produced the Smith & Wesson .32, passing it to Julia. “The idiots didn't search me. If I get the trapdoor open and somebody tries to stop me, blow his fool head off.”
“But it's locked.”
“I know it's locked, but I'll get my back against it and push.”
“Break it apart?”
“Yeah, either the door or my back.”
But then a key rattled in the padlock, the trapdoor creaked open, and suddenly it was too late. Too late for everything.
Shawn O'Brien reached out, grabbed the revolver from Julia's hand, and shoved it into his pocket.
Broadcloth-covered legs appeared on the stairs, then the barrel of a shotgun. Two other pairs of legs followed, the booted and spurred limbs of Zeb Moss's hired hardcases.
For a single wild moment, Shawn thought about drawing the .32 and shooting it out. But five rounds from a belly gun against three scatterguns were not good odds. He let the moment pass. Best to live to fight another day when the deck wasn't so stacked against him.
“You're out of here, O'Brien,” Rance Bohan said, his prodding shotgun making more than a nodding acquaintance with Shawn's belly.
“I'm glad you came to your senses, Bohan,” Shawn said. “And Trixie is coming with me, of course.”
“Wrong on both counts,” Bohan said, his smile ugly. “Trixie stays here and you come with us. We're going for a little ride. Not far. Just beyond the city limits where it's quiet-like.”
“What are you planning, Bohan?” Shawn's eyes narrowed.
“You'll find out. Now get up them stairs or you get it in the belly right here and now. I don't care. It won't be me has to clean up the mess afterward.”
“Bohan, you're a joy to be around,” Shawn retorted.
“Yeah, ain't I though? But you haven't even seen the worst of me. Not by a long shot, you haven't.”
“Shawn . . .” Julia tried to find words and failed. But the tears in her eyes spoke volumes.
“I'll be back for you, Julia,” Shawn said. “I promise.”
Bohan grinned. “Don't count on it, O'Brien. Now move!”
Shawn was roughly hustled up the stairs. Behind him he heard Julia's soft sobs and his fear for her and for him turned to a slow-burning anger.
He was surprised to see the dawn as he walked out of the saloon, Bohan and the two hardcases close behind him. His horse stood at the hitching rail with three others, saddled and ready for the trail
“Get up on the hoss, O'Brien,” Bohan said. “I see a fancy move and you're a dead man.”
“Where are we headed, Rance?” Shawn asked, knowing it would irritate the gunman.
“Damn you, I told you that you'll find out,” Bohan exclaimed. “And don't call me Rance. The only people I allow to call me by my given name are my friends.”
“Well, don't that beat all,” Shawn drawled. “I didn't think you had any.”
Bohan's smile was thin as the edge of a knife. “Keep it up, O'Brien. I'll soon cut you down to size.”
Shawn swung into the saddle under the watchful cold eyes of shotgun muzzles. There was no snow, but frost crackled in the air and black clouds hung low over the city.
Bohan led the way east along the north bank of the Santa Fe River, timbered, snow-covered mountain peaks rising on all sides. He kept close to the bank, riding through heavy stands of cottonwood, wild oak, and willow.
Shawn tried to guess where they were headed, and why. Only Rance Bohan knew the answer, but he sat thin and dry on his horse and said nothing.
After an hour of making their way through rough country where every rock they passed was covered in a slick of ice and the wind bit like a snake, one of the hardcases figured it was time to complain. “How much farther, Rance? I say we gun him here and have done. Hell, I ain't even had breakfast yet.”
Bohan drew rein and looked around him. “How far can a man with a bullet in his belly crawl? Anybody know?”
A second hardcase, older, grimmer, and maybe wiser, said, “One time down in the Texas Badlands I seen the body of a ranny who'd crawled three miles across desert country with a Comanche bullet in his gut. Seems to me this cold would ice a man's belly and he could drag hisself a sight farther.”
“Damn you fer a talkin' man, Cletus,” the younger hardcase said, his eyes ugly.
“Man asked a question an' I answered it,” Cletus said.
“Cletus is right,” Bohan said. “We'll ride a piece longer. I want O'Brien to know he's dying, but I don't want him to crawl back to Santa Fe and leave us with a heap of questions to answer.”
Shawn felt a mix of fear and anger and the savage desire to rip Bohan's heart out with his bare hands. He felt the solid weight of the .32 in his pocket, but it was not the time to use it. Bohan and his hardcases were on edge and they'd be alert to his every move. Better to bide his time and strike when they least expected it.
It was thin, mighty thin, but it was all Shawn had and he was determined to make the best of it when the time came and things turned ugly.
Rance Bohan drew rein. Ahead of him, through a tattered veil of falling snow, he scanned a low ridge, the rocky slope studded with piÃ±on and juniper. Snow lay here and there like discarded hotel sheets and the tops of the taller rock spires had a crest of white, making them look like wise old men who had come down from the mountains.
“There,” Bohan said, pointing. “We'll take O'Brien to the top of the ridge and put a bullet in his belly. A gut shot man isn't going to crawl down from there.”
The younger hardcase dashed a drip from the end of his nose with a gloved hand. “Gun him here, Rance. Then I'll dab a loop on him and drag him up among them piÃ±ons.”
Bohan turned to Shawn. “If you got any prayers, O'Brien, say them now. In a few minutes you'll be hurting too bad for anything but screaming.”
“You damned tinhorn, Bohan. You go to hell.”
The gunman smiled. “O'Brien, it's going to be a real pleasure putting a bullet into you.” He brushed back his caped greatcoat and drew his Colt. His voice was flat, hard, and hollow, the voice of death. “Git off the horse.”
The time had come for Shawn O'Brien to make his play.
His hand dropped to the pocket of his sheepskin and closed on the little revolver.
Rance Bohan sat his saddle, dead for two seconds before the sound of the rifle shot crashed among the surrounding peaks. A bloody hole appeared between the man's eyes, but he stayed where he was, straight-backed and upright in the saddle.
The young hardcase, his eyes wild, leveled his shotgun at Shawn. A second rifle shot blew the man out of the saddle. He triggered his scattergun as he fell, and his horse took both barrels of buckshot in the belly. The animal screamed and dropped on top of him.
“Mister, I don't know what the hell is happening here, but I'm out of it,” the older man named Sam said, raising his hands high. Terror showed in a face suddenly drained of color.
“The hell you are.” The fear Shawn had felt had destroyed any inclination of mercy in him. He triggered the .32 dry into the hardcase's chest. The man tumbled from the saddle, dead when he hit the ground.
Shawn watched a drift of gunsmoke from the ridge catch in the wind. Then a buckskinned figure rose from behind a shelf of rock and stood watching him. The man raised his hand in greeting and climbed the ridge to the crest, then disappeared from view.
Shawn was puzzled. Because of snow and distance he couldn't make out his savior's face. He looked like Luther Ironside, but was too short. Apart from Luther, no one else he knew wore buckskins.
Unless . . .
He shook his head. No, it couldn't be him.
But it was.
A few minutes later, Uriah Tweedy rode along a thin trail between the drop of the rise and the river, the butt of his old Henry rifle on his right thigh. When he got close enough, Tweedy smiled under his beard. “Howdy, young feller.”
“Tweedy, what the hell are you doing here?” Shawn looked at the man in wonder.
“Savin' your damned fool skin, last I looked.”
“But you're shot through and through. You should be in bed.”
“Yeah, I should be, but I ain't.”
“You rode all the way here with a broken shoulder to help me?”
“The hell I did. I'm here to save the woman I plan to marry up with.”
“Who? You mean you don't know? Why Miss Trixie, you danged fool.”
Shawn was taken aback. “She's . . . I mean . . . damn it, Uriah, you're an old coot.”
“And she's a young woman. That's why I plan to wed her. She'll be a sweet consolation to me in my old age.” Tweedy looked around him. “An' speakin' of sich, where is she?”
“It's a long story, and none of it makes for agreeable listening.”
“Then I'd better hear it. But not here. Weather's closing in. I say we head for Santa Fe afore it gets dark.” Tweedy's eyes roamed over the dead men. “These rannies part of the story?”
“Yes, they are.” Shawn looked at Tweedy as though he could scarcely believe the man was real. “How come you were here just when I needed you, Uriah? It's . . . well, it's like a miracle.”
“Miracle my ass, sonny. Soon as I heard where you was headed I pulled out and followed you, figuring you'd lead me to Miss Trixie.” Tweedy shook his head. “You ain't exactly a hard man to track. Just as well the Apaches are all in Florida or you'd be a goner fer sure.”
Shawn let that go, and said, “How did you find me here?”
Tweedy sighed, as though he was talking with a none-too-bright child. “Wasn't I in Santa Fe and didn't I keep an eye on the Lucky Lady saloon? When I seen them three hardcases lead you out of there by the nose and you lookin' as scared as a rabbit in a coyote's back pocket, I figured your goose was cooked. Lucky for you them rubes was riding slow, so I got ahead of them.”
Tweedy was silent for a few moments, then feeling that further explanation was called for, he said, “Sonny, when a man hunts ol' Ephraim for a living, he knows when to stay out of sight and when to start shootin'. You catch my drift?”
“Uriah, I can't go back to Santa Fe. I'm a marked man.”
“Of course you're a marked man, so you'll bed down in the livery stable like I done. The place is run by a broken-down old range cook by the name of Miles Marshwood. He knows how to keep his trap shut and there's not a hoss or wagon goes in and out of the city Miles don't know about. We can keep an eye on Zeb Moss and his men and find a way to free Miss Trixie.”
“Damn, Uriah, it's thin,” Shawn said. “And dangerous.”
“Of course it's thin, unless you got a better idea.”
“Then it's all we got, so we'll make the best of it.” Tweedy motioned to the dead men. “Find yourself a rifle and a belt gun. Then we'll ride.”
“How does your shoulder feel?” Shawn finally asked.
“How do you think it feels?” Tweedy demanded.
“I'd guess it hurts like hell.”
“Then you'd be right.”
“What about them?” Shawn pointed to the dead men.
“What about them?”
“Should we do something . . . cover them up, maybe?”
“Hell, sonny, we don't have time for that. Leave them for the coyotes.” Tweedy thought about that, then added, “That is, if'n coyotes eat their own kind.”