Authors: William W. Johnstone
The horses surged forward against their harness and the coach picked up speed. The other end of the gap was about fifty yards away.
The coach never reached it. Salty had to haul back hard on the reins and shout, “Whoaaa!” as a huge boulder landed in the road with a resounding crash.
The coach was going fast enough that it and the team almost plowed into the boulder anyway, even though Salty threw his weight against the reins and kicked hard against the brake lever. The vehicle rocked and swayed on its leather thoroughbraces and finally skidded to a halt a few yards short of the boulder, which had landed right in the middle of the road. If it had been to one side or the other, Salty might have been able to steer past it.
The shooting from the sides of the gap started before the stagecoach even came to a stop. Matt saw powder smoke spurting from several different places along both rims. He brought the shotgun to his shoulder and loosed one barrel at the rim on the right side of the gap, then swung the weapon smoothly to the left and triggered the other barrel. With all the rocks up there it was likely the robbers had good cover, but with buckshot spraying around, it was possible some of the pellets might find their mark.
Matt dropped the empty shotgun on the floorboards of the driver's box and twisted to pull the Winchester from its sheath. In a continuation of the same move he vaulted off the box and dropped lithely to the ground.
At the same time, Salty leaped down on the coach's other side. As soon as he caught his balance, he drew the Colt on his hip and started blazing away at the hidden robbers.
The problem was that they were caught in a cross fire, Matt thought as slugs continued to whine over his head. There was really no place they could hunt cover except underneath the stagecoach. That might be enough to stop most of the lead from finding them, but they would be pinned down if they did that, unable to stick a head out without the risk of having it shot off.
On the other hand, out in the open like this they were in an even worse position. The road agents were bound to get the range pretty soon, and then he and Salty would be in real trouble.
They met at the rear of the coach, crouched there, and returned the gunfire from the rims. Over the roar of shots, Salty yelled, “Dang it, we're in a bad spot here, Matt! Looks like we're gonna get kilt for sure!”
Something nagged at the back of Matt's brain, some sense that more was really going on here than he realized. With that prodding at him, he said, “These outlaws haven't gunned down anybody who surrendered, have they?”
“Maybe we'd better throw down our guns.”
“Dadblast it! Surrenderin' eats at my crawâ”
“Better than getting a bullet through it,” Matt pointed out.
Salty raked his fingers through his beard, yanked off his battered old hat with its turned-up brim, and threw it to the ground in exasperation.
“All right!” the old-timer said. “Our bosses are gonna be mighty disappointed in us, though.”
Matt listened to the sound of slugs hitting the coach and said, “Maybe. Maybe not.”
“I'll explain later. For now . . .”
Matt straightened, tossed the Winchester out into the open, and stepped away from the coach with his arms raised and his hands high in the air. Immediately, the shooting from the rims stopped.
Salty threw his revolver down and raised his hands, too, as he moved a few steps from the vehicle. Carefully, Matt lowered his left hand, reached across his body, and slid his Colt from its holster. He tossed it to the ground next to the Winchester.
His skin crawled a little as he stood there in the open. He had based his actions on something too nebulous to even be called a hunch. If he was wrong, he and Salty could expect to feel bullets smashing into their bodies at any second.
Instead, the gap became eerily quiet as the echoes left over from the gun thunder rolled away.
Less than a minute later, the sound of hoofbeats broke the silence. They came from behind the stagecoach. Matt and Salty turned to look as several riders entered the gap through the same end the coach had used a few minutes earlier.
Matt counted four men trotting toward them, all holding revolvers. The robbers wore long brown dusters and brown hats with the brims pulled down. Bandannas covered the lower halves of their faces, so nothing was visible except their eyes. The guns in their hands were steady as they covered Matt and Salty.
Movement glimpsed in the corner of his eye caught Matt's attention. He turned his head and lifted his gaze to the rim on the right. Several more duster-clad outlaws had stepped out of concealment to point rifles down at the stagecoach. Matt's gaze swung to the left. More of the men stood on that side of the gap.
He and Salty were well and truly trapped.
The riders reined in. Without speaking, one of them motioned with his gun toward the driver's box.
“Dadgum it, I know what you want,” Salty grumbled.
He started to lower his hands, and the outlaw jerked his gun in a signal that the jehu should keep them raised.
“Jehosaphat! How do you expect me to get into the box without puttin' my hands down?”
The man who seemed to be the leader of the outlaws pondered that for a second, then nodded and gestured again with the gun.
Two of the riders followed Salty to the front of the coach while the other two stayed where they were with their guns pointed at Matt. Salty had the key to the box's padlock on a ring on his belt. He unlocked it and reached inside. The riders tensed, as if worrying that the old man might have a gun hidden in there.
The only thing Salty took out of the box was the express pouch. He stepped back and said, “That's all that was in there. Have a look for yourself if you don't believe me, dang your hides.”
Satisfied that the box was empty, the leader reached inside his duster and slid the revolver into a cross-draw holster. He snapped his fingers and made a motion for Salty to toss him the pouch. Salty did so, and the man caught it with ease.
The riders started to back their horses away. Salty said, “Blast it, are you gonna ride off and leave that big ol' rock in the middle of the trail? I can't get the coach past it! I'll have to back outta here, turn around, and go back to Silver City!”
The leader shrugged. Judging by the look in his eyes, he found Salty's dilemma amusing.
The four men turned and galloped out of the gap. Matt cast a glance toward the guns he and Salty had thrown down. He was a little surprised the outlaws hadn't taken them, but he wasn't going to turn down even the smallest stroke of good luck.
He couldn't take a step toward the weapons, though, because the men on the rims still had rifles trained on him and Salty. Clearly, they weren't going to budge until the four who had ridden into the gap had made their getaway.
From where he stood beside the box, Salty said, “Dang varmints are downright creepy, the way they don't talk.”
“Is that the way it was the other times they held you up?” Matt asked.
“Yep. Threw lead until we didn't have any choice but to surrender, then closed in around us and made me open the box. Never said a dang word, even when they were lootin' valuables from the passengers. Always just motioned and pointed.”
“How come nobody ever told me about this?”
“Wasn't any reason to, as far as I can see,” Salty said with a frown. “And Miz Mullins, shoot, as far as I know she may not even know about it.”
The information might be important, though, Matt thought. For one thing, it fit in with the vague theory that had begun to form in his brain.
The outlaws on the rims began to withdraw. One by one, they disappeared as they moved back out of sight, and each time that happened, Matt heard rapid hoofbeats a moment later. They were mounting up and galloping away to rendezvous with the four who had taken the express pouch from the coach.
Finally, the last man vanished. Salty lowered his arms and said, “Danged well about time! These meat hooks o' mine were about to fall off.”
Matt went quickly to the guns and picked up his Colt and Winchester. He holstered the revolver and started to hurry past the stagecoach, but he paused for a moment to study the dozens of bullet holes in the vehicle.
“Yeah, they really shot up the old girl,” Salty said. “We're lucky we ain't ventilated, too. But she'll still drive all right once I get her turned around and started back to Silver City.”
“You'll have to make that trip by yourself, Salty,” Matt said. “And I'm sorry, but you'll have to do it with one less horse because I'm taking one of the team.”
“What!” Salty was aghast. “You can't do that. It'll take me until the middle o' the night to get back if I have to do it with three horses.”
“Can't be helped. I'm going after those outlaws.”
“By yourself?” Salty frowned. “There was a good dozen of 'em. Besides, you signed on to be the shotgun guard.”
“I signed on with Wells Fargo,” Matt pointed out. “Anyway, there's nothing left to guard. They already got the express pouch.”
“Yeah, but . . . if you catch up to 'em, you'll get yourself killed!”
“I'm after that reward, remember? In order to collect, I have to corral that gang.”
“You . . . you can't do it on your own, dadblast it!” Salty sputtered. “I'll come with you. We'll take two of the horses.”
“What about the stagecoach?”
“When it don't show up in Lordsburg, the station manager there will have the sheriff send some deputies out to look for it. They'll find it here. It sure ain't goin' nowhere.”
Matt considered the idea. He was used to operating on his own most of the time, but Salty was an old, cool-nerved campaigner who kept his head under fire. With the odds what they were, it could very well come in handy to have him along.
“All right, but you'd better leave a note with the coach so whoever comes looking for it will know that we're not dead. Tell them that we've taken up the trail of the outlaws, and maybe those deputies will come after us.”
Salty nodded solemnly and said, “That's a mighty fine idea, Matt. One thing, though . . . you'll have to write the note. I can pop a whip and cuss out a dang stagecoach team and shoot the whiskers off a gnat at fifty yards . . . but I'm a mite shy on book learnin'!”
Salty advised him which two members of the stagecoach team would serve best as mounts, and they unhitched the horses.
“How are you at riding bareback?” Matt asked.
“Shoot, I never knew what a saddle was until I was twelve years old!” Salty replied with a contemptuous snort. “There's a couple of old blankets in the rear boot that we sometimes wrap around any cargo back there that might be fragile. We can use them as saddle blankets like the Injuns do and cut up some o' this here harness to make bridles out of. It'll be like some fancy lady takin' a ride in the park on a Sunday afternoon!”
Matt smiled. He didn't think it would be exactly the same, but having the blankets and bridles were certainly a lot better than nothing.
Within a few minutes they were ready to go. Salty drove the coach over as close to the side of the gap as he could so the horses they were leaving behind would have some shade.
“Wish we could leave 'em some grain and water, but there ain't none,” he said. “Well, the poor brutes shouldn't have to be out here for too long, prob'ly not even overnight. We're facin' a future that's a whole heap more uncertain, if you ask me.”
“We'll find out,” Matt said.
He carried a stub of pencil and some paper with him, folded up in his pocket, and he had already used some of it for the note they'd be leaving behind for the deputies. He closed one of the coach doors on it so that part of it was sticking out and would be noticeable flapping in the breeze. The deputies ought to see it right away, but even if they didn't, somebody was bound to find it sooner or later.
With those things taken care of, Matt and Salty climbed up onto the horses and rode back out of the gap the way they had come . . . and the way the four outlaws had departed.
Picking up the trail wasn't difficult. It didn't appear that the holdup men had even tried to hide their tracks. They must have believed that they were safe as they rode off into the rugged badlands of southern New Mexico to rejoin their comrades, since a stagecoach couldn't follow where they were going. Maybe it had never occurred to them that somebody could unhitch a horse from the stagecoach team and pursue them that way.
Once Matt and Salty were away from the road, the terrain was pretty bad. Stretches of hardpan alternated with bands of volcanic rock that could cut a horse's hooves to ribbons if the rider wasn't careful. Salty warned them away from depressions filled with sand that would “suck down a man or a horse,” according to him. Deep ravines slashed across the earth as well, forcing travelers to detour around them, and sometimes they had to circle towering pinnacles of rock as well.
Matt had been through this region before. It was still just as ugly and intimidating now.
The tracks weren't too hard to follow, though. They were easy enough to see where the ground was sandy, and in the rocky stretches Matt was able to spot the tiny marks left behind by horseshoes. A few times it seemed that he and Salty had lost the trail, but after a little searching they always picked it up again.
Matt also saw where the other outlaws joined the ones he and Salty were trailing. He kept count and decided that there were an even dozen in the gang, as he had estimated during the holdup.
The tracks led north toward a range of small mountains. Matt asked, “Do you know what those are called?”
“Them's the Armadillo Hills, on account of they're shaped sort of like armadillos. See what I mean?”
“I don't know,” Matt said dubiously. “They don't look much like armadillos to me.”
Salty snorted and said, “Do the Grand Tetons really look that much like a gal's bosoms?”
“They never have to me,” Matt replied with a smile.
“Well, there you go. A fella sees what he wants to see sometimes, and the fella who named them hills thought he saw armadillos.”
“Fair enough,” Matt said. “Does anybody live up there? Any mines or ranches or anything like that?”
“Not that I've ever heard tell. They're about as empty and useless as any place on earth, I reckon.”
“Sounds like a perfect place for a gang of outlaws to hole up, doesn't it?”
“It does, at that,” Salty agreed.
The trail pointed unmistakably toward the Armadillos. Due to the ruggedness of the terrain, it took the rest of the day to cover the relatively short distance to the mountains. Night was falling as Matt and Salty reached the slopes.
“We gonna make camp?” Salty asked. “We ain't got no supplies, not even any jerky.”
“We'll stop and let the horses rest for a while, but then I think we'll do some exploring.”
“In the dark?”
“It's pretty clear those road agents didn't think anybody would follow them. Maybe they're still being careless.”
“Oh,” Salty said. “You think maybe we'll spot their campfire.”
“I think there's a chance of it,” Matt said. “Not only that, but these horses have to be pretty thirsty by now. If the outlaws have a camp up here, it'll be in some place where there's water. If the horses smell it, they'll take us right to it.”
Salty regarded him with narrowed eyes and said, “You've done some manhuntin' before, haven't you, son?”
“A little,” Matt admitted. “And I had a couple of really good teachers when it came to taking care of myself.”
“Who might that have been?”
“I'll tell you all about it later,” Matt said, “providing we come out of this alive.”
After the horses had had a chance to blow, the two men mounted up again and rode slowly into the hills. Or mountains, Matt thought. Whatever name they went by, they didn't amount to much.
An hour or so went by. By now full night had fallen and millions of stars had put in an appearance in the black sky, casting their silvery light over the stark landscape. The moon hadn't risen yet.
Suddenly, the horse Matt was riding lifted its head. A second later, so did Salty's mount.
“I ain't seen no signs of a campfire,” Salty said quietly, “but these two nags sure act like they scented water.”
“I agree,” Matt said. “Let's give them their heads and see where they take us.”
The horses climbed steadily toward the top of a ridge. As they neared the crest, Matt abruptly smelled something, too: the aroma of stew simmering in a pot.
He hauled back on the makeshift reins. Salty did likewise, and Matt whispered, “They're close. I can smell their cooking.”
“So can I,” the old-timer said, “and it's remindin' me it's been a heck of a long time since I et somethin'!”
“Maybe we can do something about that before too much longer.”
“What? Waltz into that owlhoot camp and ask if we can stay to supper?”
“We'll see,” Matt said. “For now I think we'd better leave these horses here.”
They slid down from the horses' backs and looked around for something to hitch the reins to. Failing to find anything in these barren hills, they settled for letting the reins dangle to the ground and placing rocks on them. That wouldn't hold the horses if they got really spooked, but it was the best they could do.
On foot, they climbed to the top of the ridge, knelt there, and took off their hats to risk a look. Matt didn't think the starshine was bright enough to skylight them, but there was no point in taking unnecessary chances.
The ridge fell away on the other side into a broad depression. A dark streak marked the stunted vegetation along a small stream. Matt had been sure the outlaws had to have a source of water, and this proved he was right. The little creek probably rose from a spring, twisted through the badlands for a mile or so, and then plunged back underground.
Half a dozen adobe huts lined one bank of the stream, the sort of crude
that peasant farmers built in this part of the world. At some point in the past, a small group must have tried to make a go of farming here in these hills, only to give it up. Even with water, the soil was so poor that it wouldn't produce much.
made good quarters for a gang of no-good stagecoach robbers, though. Smoke came from the primitive chimneys of several of the structures.
“Well, we found 'em,” Salty said. “Now what do we do?”
Matt pointed to a brush corral near the stream and said, “If we stampede their horses, they can't go anywhere. Then from up here we can keep them pinned in the huts until those deputies from Lordsburg get here.”
“You're assumin' any deputies'll even come lookin' for us. And to do what you said, we'll have to split up. One fella goes after the horses while the other stays up here and takes potshots at anybody who pokes a head outta them shacks.”
“That's right.” Matt held out the Winchester toward Salty. “You're a good shot, right? You said you could shoot the whiskers off a gnat at fifty yards.”
“Well . . . well . . . yeah, but tarnation, boy, whoever sneaks down yonder is gonna be in a lot more danger than whoever sits up here on this ridge!”
“I don't know about that. They'll likely be shooting back at you. I plan to stampede those horses and then light a shuck out of there. I'll circle back around up here and give you a hand keeping them pinned down.”
Salty sighed and took the rifle.
“All right, if you're bound and determined to do it that way. I'll keep my head down until you start the ball down there.”
Matt clapped a hand on the old-timer's shoulder.
“Don't waste your shots,” he advised. “I brought along extra shells, but we've only got so many.”
He took the other cartridges out of his pockets and handed them to Salty as well. With that done, he slid down the ridge a short distance and began making his way along it so that he could circle around to the outlaws' camp.
It was an even bet whether or not they had posted any guards. They had been pulling off those stagecoach robberies for a couple of months, Salty had said, and no one had even tried to track them down yet. They had to be pretty confident that they were safe here in these desolate, isolated hills. Even if there were sentries, they might not be very alert.
Long minutes stretched past as Matt worked his way into position. He crawled over a little hill and slid down it to the creek about a hundred yards downstream from the huts. The scrub brush that grew along the banks provided some cover for him as he crept toward the corral.
He splashed across the creek in a couple of steps and paused next to the corral. A dozen horses milled around inside it, already disturbed slightly by the scent of a strange human being approaching them. Matt reached out to grab some of the branches that had been woven together to form an enclosure. In a matter of minutes, the barrier would be down and he could fire off a shot, yell at the top of his lungs, and send the horses bolting out of the corral.
Before he could do any of those things, the sound of a gun being cocked came from behind him, and a voice warned, “I wouldn't do that if I was you, mister.”
Matt froze. He didn't know what was more shocking: that someone had sneaked up on him without him knowing it . . .
Or that judging by the voice, the person who had the drop on him was a little girl.