Authors: Ralph Cotton
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #General
“Wake up, long rider. It's time to die,” Folliard growled through his swollen jaw. He pulled the Colt's trigger and sent a streak of fire blazing down through the blanket. As soon as he'd pulled the trigger, he swung the Colt toward the second blanket on the other side of the campfire, cocked it and braced to fire again. He stood waiting for a second. When no movement came from the other blanket, he looked back down.
“What the hell?” he said. He swung around toward Crane. But instead of seeing his partner standing fifteen feet away where he'd left him, he saw the shadowy outline of a man drawing back the butt stock of a Winchester rifle. “Oh no,” he managed to say just as the rifle butt jabbed forward with a fierce blow and nailed him squarely across his forehead.
The Colt in Folliard's hand fired wildly as he fell backward to the ground.Â .Â .Â .
A SIGNET BOOK
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,
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Copyright Â© Ralph Cotton, 2013
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REGISTERED TRADEMARKâMARCA REGISTRADA
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Mary Lynn, of courseÂ .Â .Â .
Twisted Hills, the Mexican Badlands
The wide dirt street of Paso Alto lay beneath a veil of dry wavering heat as Arizona Ranger Samuel Burrack rode the black-speckled barb at a walk past the Gatos Malos Cantina. From under the brim of his sweat-stained sombrero, he eyed three men seated along a blanket-cushioned swing on the cantina's front porch. Each man held a rifle; each man wore a bandolier of ammunition hanging from his shoulder across his chest.
The three men returned the Ranger's stare, keeping the porch swing moving slowly back and forth with the slightest effort of their scuffed boots.
“That's right, gringo. You just keep moving on along,” the man in the middle growled under his breath, more to his two
than to the Ranger.
On the man's right, a broad-shouldered Mexican gunman known only as Pesado gave a single grunt of a laugh, finding irony in Ross McCloud calling the stranger a
. McCloud was from Missouri, after allâless than three months in Paso Alto, where he'd taken refuge from Missouri law.
“You are one
, Ross,” Pesado said with a sharp grin, his dark eyes following the Ranger for a few yards before turning away.
Ross McCloud stared straight ahead and spoke to the gunman on his left, an on-the-run murderer called Little Richard Fitts.
“Did he just call me a
, Little Richard?” McCloud asked quietly, yet in a menacing voice.
“Yes, I believe he did,” Little Richard replied, eyeing a busty young British woman stepping out of the cantina and lighting herself a thin black cigar.
Ross McCloud nodded.
“Good,” he said, also watching the woman draw deep on the cigar and let out a stream of smoke. “For a minute there I thought he was insulting me.”
Ten feet away the British woman untied the strings holding her blouse shut across her breasts.
“I hope you fellows don't mind,” she said with only the trace of a British accent. “It's hotter than Hades at high noon.” She fanned the blouse, then retied it loosely, and left it hanging partly agape, her pale freckled breasts half-exposed in the white-hot sunlight.
mind, do we, Little Richard?” McCloud said without taking his eyes off the woman.
“Not too awful much,” Little Richard replied, staring at her, his lips hanging slightly agape. “It is high noon,” he added.
“And this is hell,” McCloud said to her. “Leastwise it was, until it got so hot the devil moved out.” Without taking his eyes from the woman, he stood up and held his rifle out sidelong to the Mexican beside him. “Pesado, hold this for me. I'm going to go count this young lady's freckles.”
“Oh, are you, now, luv?” the woman said. She turned to face them, a hand cupped at the center of her half-naked breasts. “And what might I be
whilst you amuse yourself?” She turned her cupped hand enough to rub her fingers and thumb together in the universal sign of greed, then clasped it back over herself as if overcome by modesty.
“I can't stand this,” said Fitts, leaning his rifle against the end of the swing, stepping forward. “I'll give you something to count,” he said to the woman.
“Easy, luv, your fangs are showing,” the woman said to Fitts.
“Wait a minute, Little Richard,” said McCloud. “Who invited you?”
“When she turned them puppies loose, that's all the inviting I needed,” said Fitts. He started forward.
McCloud hurried alongside him, shoving him away.
“We've been pards awhile, Little Richard,” he warned. “But I swear to Godâ”
Behind them, Pesado stood laughing under his breath. But something in the corner of his eye caused him to turn suddenly toward the empty street. When he did, he found himself staring at the Ranger, who stood less than two feet from him, his big Colt cocked and aimed at the Mexican's broad belly.
“Buenos dÃas, Pesado,”
the Ranger said quietly.
In reflex the Mexican started to swing his Spencer rifle around, having to drop McCloud's Winchester to do so. But before he could complete his move, the Ranger poked him with the gun barrel, just hard enough to make himself understood.
“If I wanted to kill you, you'd already be dead,” the Ranger said menacingly. “Drop it.”
McCloud and Fitts both turned at hearing the Winchester hit the ground. Now they saw Pesado's Spencer rifle fall from his hands. They saw the Ranger standing with his Colt jammed into the Mexican gunman's belly.
They started to make a play for the revolvers holstered on their hips.
Pesado saw the look in the Ranger's eyes.
he shouted at the other two gunmen. “This one will kill me. I know he will!”
“Who are you, mister?” McCloud asked, his and Fitts' hands rising chest high in a show of peace. “What the hell is your game here?”
“I'm here to see Fatch Hardaway,” Sam said flatly.
“Huh-uh. We can't let you do that,” said McCloud, in spite of the Ranger's catching the three by surprise and getting the drop on them. He and Fitts took a cautious step sidelong toward the cantina door as if to block it. The British woman stood back, cigar in hand, watching intently.
“Sure you can,” said Sam. “He knows I'm coming.”
As he spoke he pulled the cocked Colt's barrel back an inch from the Mexican's belly and pulled the trigger. All three men braced themselves, their eyes widenedâespecially Pesado's. But the Ranger caught the gun hammer with his thumb at a split second and eased it down. Pesado let out a deep sigh and cursed the Ranger under his breath.
“You dirty, rotten, gringo
Â .Â .Â .
He let his words trail.
The Ranger, his Colt hanging in his hand, slipped the Mexican's revolver from its holster, pitched it down beside the rifles and stepped away from Pesado toward the door.
“I already said we can't let you do that,” McCloud said in a stronger tone, his and Fitts' gun hands dropping down, poised beside their holstered revolvers.
The Ranger's thumb cocked the big Colt again. He stopped and raised the barrel calmly, smoothly, before either man made their move.
McCloud raged silently. Again this stranger had the drop on them.
Damn it to hell!
The British woman shook her lowered head. She let out a stream of smoke, dropped the thin cigar and crushed it out under her foot.
“By my starsÂ .Â .Â . ,” she said. “Aren't the three of you just
the berriesÂ .Â .Â .Â ”
Her words fell away as a tall man in a black sweat-stained suit coat stepped into the doorway and looked back and forth. He held a sleek long-barreled Remington Army revolver hanging in his right hand. He raised his free hand and removed a long, thick cigar from his mouth.
“Well, well, Ranger Samuel Burrack,” he said. “Here you are, just as I'd hoped.”
“I said I'd be here, Hardaway,” the Ranger replied.
“So you did,” said Hardaway. “And you've strolled through my bodyguards without so much as a shot fired, I see.” He gave each of his three gunmen a scorching look. “I can't tell you how pleased that makes me, as much as I'm paying these gun monkeys.”
McCloud, Fitts and Pesado looked at each other as if dumbstruck. McCloud stepped forward, embarrassed, and gestured a hand toward Sam.
“Boss, it's lucky for him you showed up just now,” he said. “We come very near killing this fool. Not sure you was expecting him, that is.”
“Yes, lucky him,” said Hardaway with a searing stare at Ross McCloud. “All of you
best pick your guns up before someone carries them off.”
The British woman gave a short, playful chuckle; Hardaway shot her a hard glance too. Seeing her loosely exposed breasts, he took a deep, patient breath.
“Edy, put those away before somebody walks into a post and knocks their damn teeth out,” he said seriously.
“I certainly wouldn't want that, now, would I?” she said, closing her blouse front a little better, but not all the way.
“There you are, Ranger,” said Hardaway. “See why I want to go back to Texas without getting hanged? Life gets awfully trying around this bunch.”
“I bet,” Sam said. “You need to remember that the next time before you shoot a man and burn his saloon with him inside it.”
“I realize that I may have acted a little rash and hastily, both in killing him and in burning his saloon down,” said Hardaway. “But what has become of forgiveness these days?”
Sam just stared at him.
“At any rateÂ .Â .Â .” Hardaway looked the Ranger up and down, then motioned him inside out of the sun. “Welcome to the Bad Cats Cantina,” he said.
The Ranger stepped inside and looked around the cantina's dingy, dark interior.
“This is your place?” he asked Hardaway.
“Let's just say I've acquired a substantial interest in it,” he said, guiding the Ranger across the dirt floor toward tables standing beneath rings of circling flies. “I do hope you've got some good news for me.”
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
On the front porch, the Englishwoman, Edith “Edy the Hand” Casings, tightened her blouse shut and gave the gunmen a disgusted look as they stooped and picked up their rifles, looking them over good. Seeing her adjust her bosom and straighten the blouse as if preparing to leave, Ross McCloud stepped closer to her.
“Don't rush off, little darling,” he said with a wide grin. “I haven't lost interest in counting those freckles.”
“Nor have I,” Fitts cut in, stepping closer himself.
But Edy the Hand was having none of it. She sidestepped the two, moved past them and started toward an alleyway around the side of the cantina.
“I've got an errand to run, luvs. You can go count the nits on each other's arses, as far as I'm concerned,” she said, a hand patting her breasts. “These puppies are trained to sniff out
game, and live game
“Wait! I'm live game! I've got money here,” McCloud called out after her. He shoved a hand down deep in his pocket and jingled some coins.
“Sorry, but I prefer money that folds instead of rattles. Anyway, money's not everything, is it, now, luv?” she said over her shoulder as she hurried away down the narrow alleyway.
“The hell did she mean by that?” Fitts said, looking confounded.
Behind the two, Pesado stood watching, a mocking grin on his broad face.
“She means that being seen with you two will only make her look bad,” he said in a superior tone. “I have to admit, I do not disagree,” he added with a dark grin.
“Oh yeah?” said Little Richard, levering a round up into his rifle chamber. “How bad will it make
look if I clipped off an ear or two for youâ”
“Both of you shut up!” McCloud demanded. He turned to the big Mexican. “How come the Ranger knows your name?”
“Because in some places I am known as a bad hombre,” Pesado said, his face taking on a more serious expression, staring at Fitts' rifle pointed toward him. Fitts lowered the rifle barrel a little and took a deep breath.
“So what?” Fitts grumbled. “If I had a dollar for every ragged-assed lawman who knows my nameâ”
, but this is not just any lawman,” said Pesado. “This is Sam Burrack, the Ranger some call
“Big Iron, huh?” said McCloud. He and Little Richard looked at each other. “Meaning he's one hell of a gunman, I suppose?” he asked.
“A hell of a gunman,
” Pesado shrugged. “He is a hell of a gunman, for sure. It was he who killed the gringo Junior Lake and his whole gang.”
“Say, I remember hearing about that,” said Little Richard. “One of the Lake Gang killed the old outrider Sazes, so this fellow killed every damn one of them.”
, that's the story,” said Pesado. “But that is not all this man they call Big Iron has done
” He raised a long finger for emphasis. “It was he who tracked the Red Sleeve Wilson Orez into the Blood Mountains and killed him in a knife fight.”
“Whoa, Wilson Orez, the half-breed?” said McCloud.
“Yeah,” McCloud said, all of a sudden impressed. “I did hear about that.” He gazed off at the Blood Mountain line standing in the distance above the upreaching Twisted Hills. “Orez was some kind of high mucky-muck among the old Apache Red SleevesÂ .Â .Â . a real demon when it come to wielding a blade.”
, and this is the man who killed him in a knife fight,” Pesado said proudly, as if he himself had taken part in the knife fight. His voice lowered a little. “They say this Ranger cut him open like a steerâcut off his head, his hands, his ears, his feet.”