Authors: William W. Johnstone
Matt and Preacher made it to the canyon between the twin mesas with no trouble and found the buggy that Smoke had abandoned there. The sight of the vehicle sitting there alone was a relief to Matt. Although both men had all the confidence in the world in Smoke's ability to handle whatever sort of trouble came along, until that moment they had had no actual proof that the plan was working.
Now, as they followed the tracks left by the six horses out of the canyon, they knew they were on the right trail and that Smoke and Mordecai were on their way to the Kroll gang's hideout.
“The whole shebang fooled that owlhoot,” Preacher said with an appreciative chuckle. “Bet he don't have the least idea we're doggin' their trail.”
“Smoke set it up well,” Matt agreed. “I just hope the hideout isn't up in Idaho or Montana or somewhere. That would be a long trip to make with a varmint like Kroll.”
“You got anywhere you have to be?”
“Well . . . no,” Matt admitted.
“Neither do I. That's the good thing about bein' a drifter. Smoke has to worry about Sally and what's goin' on back at that ranch o' his and all the other things that go with leadin' a settled life. While you and me, we're free and ain't got to give a hoot in Hades about such things.”
“That's true,” Matt said slowly. “And when we're out on the trail somewhere and it's cold and dark and raining and there's not another human soul within miles, we don't have to worry about bothersome things like being snuggled up in a nice soft bed with a warm, beautiful woman. Now do we?”
“Boy,” Preacher said, squinting over at him, “you're a-twistin' my words around.”
“It's all right, Preacher,” he said. “I know you're not ready to settle down just yet. Maybe one of these days . . . when you're too old and feeble to take care of yourself anymore.”
Preacher snatched his hat off and swatted at Matt with it.
“Does it look like that day's comin' any time soon, younker?” he demanded. “Well, does it?”
Still laughing, Matt fended off the mock blows and said, “Come on. We've got a trail to follow.”
Earlier that afternoon, Ben Terwilliger had hurried into the saloon and reported excitedly to Clinton, “They's leavin', Jesse. The kid and the old man you had me watchin', they're pullin' out now. Want me to go tell the boys?”
“You do that, Ben,” Clinton said. “Lew told them earlier to get ready to ride, so it shouldn't take long to round them up.”
Terwilliger grinned and bounced up and down on the balls of his feet. He had so much nervous energy that Clinton had thought more than once the twitchy little bastard was going to up and explode. He said, “I'll tell 'em, boss. I'll sure tell 'em,” and rushed out of the saloon.
Clinton laughed quietly, reached for the glass on the table in front of him that still contained a little whiskey, and tossed back the rest of the drink. Without getting in any hurry about it, he stood up.
Unlike Terwilliger, who always acted like he had fleas hopping all over him, or Lew Hooke, who was so stoic his face might as well have been hacked out of rock, Clinton moved easily with a pantherish grace. He never hurried unless he had to, and even then he didn't seem rushed.
He wasn't worried about being able to pick up the trail left by their quarry. Hooke, whose mother was half Mexican and half Apache, had spent some of his life with the savages and rivaled them as a tracker. He'd have no trouble following Matt Jensen and Preacher.
Clinton left the saloon and strolled along the street to the hotel. A moment later he knocked on Simon Ford's door. The former marshal jerked it open so quickly he might have been standing right on the other side of the panel, waiting.
“They're on the move,” Clinton drawled. “We'll ride out after them in twenty or thirty minutes.”
“Why wait so long?” Ford demanded.
“Because we don't want to tip them off that they're being followed. These aren't babes in the woods we're dealing with, Simon. Matt Jensen already has a reputation even though he's pretty young, and Preacher . . . well, that old-timer is supposed to be as canny as a lobo wolf.”
“I just don't want to take a chance on losing them.”
“Don't worry about that,” Clinton assured the former marshal. “They can't go anywhere that we can't find them, especially if they don't know they're being followed.”
Ford looked like he still didn't care for the delay, but he nodded and said, “All right. I'll be ready. Where do I meet you?”
“In front of the saloon will do.”
“I'll be there in a few minutes,” Ford promised.
By the time Clinton got back to the saloon, the men were starting to assemble. Ben Terwilliger had brought Clinton's horse from the livery stable, saddled and ready to ride. Lew Hooke walked up leading several pack-horses loaded with supplies. They had no idea how long the chase would be, so they had to be prepared. There was a good chance they would be traveling through some mighty dry country, so each man had several canteens hanging from his saddle and there were a couple of small water barrels hanging from the rig on one of the pack animals.
True to his words, Simon Ford showed up in short order, obviously eager to be on the trail. He didn't complain, though, as they waited for the rest of Clinton's men to arrive.
Finally, everyone was there and mounted. Twenty-two men, including Ford. Clinton saw how some of the townspeople were eyeing the group warily and taking care to go well around when passing by on the street. They looked like what they were, Clinton supposed: a bunch of hardcases on the trail of trouble.
At the end of that trail, a big payoff waited for them. Chances were, it would be bought with blood, but the price would be worth it, Clinton thought.
He waved the men into motion. They rode out of Yuma with him, Lew Hooke, and Simon Ford in the lead.
Late that afternoon, Hooke returned to the group from scouting out ahead of the rest of the riders by a mile or so. Clinton spotted him coming and frowned slightly as he realized that Hooke was moving pretty fast. Out here in this rugged country, a man didn't run a horse unless there was a really good reason for doing so.
Clinton wasn't the only one who noticed. Ford, riding beside him, remarked, “That's your man Hooke, isn't it? He looks like he's in a hurry.”
“Yeah. Let's ride out and meet him.”
Clinton heeled his mount into a trot. He and Ford rode ahead of the others, and a minute or so later Hooke reached them and reined in.
Before Clinton could say anything, Ford asked anxiously, “You didn't lose the trail, did you?”
“What?” Hooke frowned in surprise. “No, I didn't lose the trail. But we ain't the only ones following it.”
“What do you mean by that, Lew?” Clinton asked.
“I mean there's somebody else trailing Jensen and the old man. One rider. I got close enough to take a good look with my field glasses.”
“He didn't spot you, did he?”
Most men would have leered as they replied, but not Hooke. His angular face remained expressionless as he said, “Wasn't a he. It's a girl who's trailing them, a mighty good-lookin' girl who knows how to ride. Not how to keep an eye on her back trail, though.”
Clinton was so startled he forgot to grin. He said, “A girl? Who in the worldâ”
“I think I have an idea who she might be,” Ford said heavily. “And if I'm right, she's nothing but trouble.”
As the sun disappeared behind the horizon and night began to fall with its customary suddenness, Darcy couldn't help but wonder if maybe the decision she had made was a little too rash.
It was awfully lonely out here, with the last sign of civilization left miles behind her.
She didn't want to admit that she was scared, but she had lived all her life in cities. Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, all had their areas where it was dangerous to be alone at night, of course, but at least there lights burned in the buildings. You could see where you were.
Out here was utter darkness, and anything could be lurking in it.
She reached out and ran her fingers over the smooth wood of the Winchester carbine's stock. The man at the store who had sold the weapon to her had said that the carbine's shorter barrel and stock would make it easier for her to handle, and even though it was a smaller caliber than a regular Winchester, it still had enough stopping power to knock down almost anything. Darcy tried to draw confidence from the fact that she had the carbine with her, but the effort didn't quite work.
Nor was the weight of the pistol on her hip particularly reassuring. It was a Colt New Line .32, a streamlined weapon with smaller grips and no trigger guard. Its cylinder held five rounds, but at the moment only four chambers were loaded since the man at the store had advised her to carry it with the hammer resting on an empty chamber.
“Wouldn't want you to shoot your pretty little foot off, miss,” he had said with a smile that held a hint of a leer.
So she was well-armed, Darcy told herself, and therefore had nothing to be scared of.
Of course, it didn't actually work that way. She had handled firearms before, but only shooting at targets with men she wanted to impress. Pointing a gun at a living human being and pulling the trigger . . . well, that was something totally different. Darcy didn't know if she could do that. She wasn't even sure she could shoot a wild animal if it was attacking her.
With any luck she wouldn't have to find out about either of those things.
It would have been so much easier if that blasted Matt Jensen had been more reasonable.
Buying the horse, the saddle and tack, the guns, and the supplies she carried in a bag tied on behind the saddle had taken just about every penny she had to her name. She was counting on getting a good story and being able to sell it. If she didn't, she wasn't sure what she would do.
She had to get the storyâand survive in the processâbefore she could worry about anything else, she told herself. She spotted a large slab of rock that loomed higher than her head and angled the horse toward it. That was as good a place as any to camp, she supposed.
A couple of bushes and a little grass grew at the base of the rock. Although the ground was dry now, during the infrequent rains water probably collected there, which would explain the vegetation. Darcy dismounted and tied the horse's reins to one of the bushes. She removed the saddle and then took off her hat. She poured a little water from one of her canteens into it and let the horse drink. The only reason she knew to do that was because she had read about it in a dime novel.
Maybe she should have given some thought to doing that sort of writing, she mused. Coming up with imaginary stories had to be easier than concentrating on the real thing. The journalistic instinct was strong inside her, though. She didn't want to lower herself and become a mere scribbler of fiction.
Once the horse had had its drink and started cropping on the grass, Darcy spread a blanket on the ground and sat down. She dug in her sack of supplies and came up with a piece of jerky and a hunk of bread. The bread was already stale, and the jerky was so tough that she worried it would cause her teeth to fall out. Washed down with sips from the canteen, though, it was better than nothing.
The air was already starting to turn cool. She unrolled her bedding, took off her boots, and crawled into the blankets. Millions upon millions of stars blazed in the ebony sky above her, but their light offered cold comfort to her.
She would not break down and cry from loneliness and fear, she vowed to herself.
Smoke imagined a line on a map, running from the canyon north of Yuma where he had left the buggy in an east/northeast direction, roughly paralleling the Gila River which lay to the south. Past the Castle Dome Mountains, past other nameless mountains so desolate nothing lived there except lizards and scorpions. Past the occasional village of stubborn Mexicans or Indians who attempted to eke a living from the blasted soil. When he got back to the Sugarloaf and Sally asked about this adventure, as he knew she would, he would get out a map and trace that line with his fingertip and tell her, “This is the way Mordecai Kroll and I went.”
And while that would be true, in another way it would be a lie, a lie of omission, because it said nothing about the heat, or the blinding glare of the sun, or the sheer loneliness and isolation and the strain of having to travel with a mad dog killer who would murder him just as easily as blinking if he got the chance, simply because he could.
“What are you thinkin', Jensen?”
Smoke looked over at the man riding beside him and said, “You don't want to know.”
Mordecai threw his head back and laughed. He still wore what he scornfully called “the priest hat,” but he had changed into jeans and a faded work shirt and a brown vest. The prison shoes were still on his feet. He had complained about not having any real boots to wear, but Smoke couldn't do anything about that, nor did he really care.
“It's mighty temptin', ain't it?” Mordecai said.
Smoke knew it was probably a mistake to engage in conversation with the outlaw, but what else were they going to do out here in the middle of nowhere?
“What's tempting?” he asked.
“You keep thinkin' about how easy it'd be to slip that Colt out of its holster, point it at my head, pull back the hammer, and squeeze the trigger. Don't you?”
Smoke grunted, but other than that he didn't honor the question with a response.
“Oh, yeah,” Mordecai went on. “Wouldn't take much to kill me, would it? My life's in your hand, and it wouldn't take much effort to end it. 'Bout like you was holdin' a little baby bird. One little squeeze, that's all. One little squeeze on that baby bird, one little squeeze on the trigger. Ain't nothin' sweeter in this world than havin' the power of life and death over somethin'.” He laughed again, a cackle of sheer delight. “Hell, God must stay drunk on it all the time!”
For a long moment, Smoke didn't say anything. Then...
“You're wrong, Kroll.”
“I am? You can honestly say you don't want to shoot me?”
“No, I don't.” Smoke paused. “I'd rather beat you to death with my bare hands. Every breath you take is that much air wasted somebody else more deserving could use. But I won't do either of those things, because somebody else's life is in my hands, at least partially. My brother Luke's. So tell me . . .” Smoke drew in a deep breath. “We'll be getting pretty close to Phoenix in a few days. Where do we go from there?”
“I'll tell you when the time comes,” Mordecai said. “Until then, you just enjoy knowin' that you got to keep a piece of scum like me alive. You hear?”
Smoke didn't say anything. Trying to carry on a conversation like Mordecai was a normal human being was another waste of breath.
Darcy wasn't completely sure, but she thought a week had gone by since she'd left Yuma. A week in hell was longer than a regular week, though. That accounted for her uncertainty.
Every bit of exposed skin had been burned red by the sun. She had stayed covered up as much as possibleâeven though she had never traveled in the desert before, she had sense enough to do
âbut she hadn't been able to avoid the blistering rays entirely, and for several days she had been in considerable pain before the redness faded and some of her skin peeled off and now her hands and face were brown instead of crimson.
She had been red in other places, too. Much more indelicate places. Long hours in the saddle every day had done that.
But again, time had toughened her. Sometimes she thought she was turning into rawhide as the heat leeched moisture from her body and baked what was left.
Her body might have grown stronger, but at night she still lay for hours sometimes, just staring into the darkness and trying to control her fear. Finally, in the chilliness that would seem impossible the next day once the sun was up again, she dozed off, sleeping for a few hours before she got up and resumed the trek again.
Thankfully, Matt Jensen and Preacher hadn't proven difficult to follow. They weren't trying to cover their tracks. During the long days, Darcy had spent so much time studying the hoofprints left by the four horses that she realized they were all different. Each print had its own peculiarities, and after a while she was able to recognize them. She knew she was still on the right trail.
She stayed far enough back that she felt it was highly unlikely they would spot her. Frontiersmen like them probably looked back from time to time, and she didn't want them to see her and become curious about who was behind them. Because of that, she hadn't seen another living soul since leaving Yuma. She had never spent so much time alone in her life.
It was driving her mad.
One day she had seen the adobe
of a farming village in the distance and had been tempted to abandon her quest, turn her horse, and ride to the village as fast as she could, just so she could see human faces and hear human voices again. At that moment, it was more important to her than all the journalistic ambition she'd ever had.
Somehow she kept going, kept her horse plodding along next to the tracks left by Matt's and Preacher's horses.
That evening, as she sat on her blankets and gnawed on jerky and watched the stars come out, she counted up the days in her head and decided it had only been a week, even though it seemed much longer.
Her horse suddenly lifted its head. Darcy noticed the reaction and stiffened. The horse acted like it smelled or heard something unexpected.
There could be any number of explanations for that, Darcy told herself. A wild animal of some sort. Another horse. A band of mustangs running free.
Or saddle horses ridden by men.
She had made camp at the edge of a small arroyo. She knew better than to camp actually
the arroyo. As unlikely as a rainstorm was, it wasn't impossible, and a sudden downpour could turn one of those dry washes into a raging torrent with little or no warning.
The sky was completely clear at the moment, however, with no thunder rumbling or lightning flickering even in the far distance, so she knew it was safe to slip over the edge and hide in the arroyo until she either saw what had spooked her horse or whatever it was moved on.
She had placed the carbine on the blanket beside her when she sat down. Now she picked it up and hurried to hide in the little cleft that nature had carved across the landscape.
Darcy listened intently. Her horse whickered softly and moved around some, but she had picketed the animal securely and didn't think it would pull free. She didn't hear anything else. No other horses, no men's voices, nothing except the faint sigh of a night breeze as the land gave up some of the day's heat.
Then a tiny, gritty scrape sounded behind her as she crouched just below the rim of the arroyo's bank. Darcy gasped and turned and saw the man-shaped patch of darkness standing only a few feet from her.
In that instant, time seemed to stop. Something was wrong with the shape's head, something that made it seem grotesque and inhuman.
Then it took a step toward her and enough starlight penetrated into the arroyo for her to realize that the man wore a steeple-crowned sombrero. He lifted a hand and lurched toward her. She saw his face then, twisted and evil, and jerked the carbine up. She started to fire as fast as she could work the weapon's lever and pull the trigger.
Smoke had made good on his promise to blaze a trail for Matt and Preacher. Matt figured Preacher could have followed their quarry anywayâthe old mountain man had no equal when it came to trackingâbut it was easier because of the marks Smoke had left behind as he and Mordecai Kroll rode east. A small scratched arrow on a rock, a branch on a scrubby bush broken and twisted in a certain direction, pebbles arranged in an almost unnoticeable pattern . . . To Preacher's keen eyes, they might as well have been signposts, and Matt knew that Smoke was clever enough to leave the telltale marks without Mordecai ever realizing what he was doing.
They made a cold camp as usual at the base of a small mesa, and after they had eaten their meager supper, Matt asked, “How much farther do you think it is to the hideout?”
“Why, I ain't got no more clue about that than I do about what's on t'other side of the moon, boy. Shoot, it could be anywhere. We knew we might be lettin' ourselves in for a long chase when we lit out after Smoke and that Kroll varmint.”
Matt lay back on his bedroll with his hands locked together behind his head and said, “Yeah, I know that. But think about it . . . Mordecai Kroll was by himself when Luke captured him up in Apache County. Doesn't it stand to reason that the hideout had to be within a few days' ride from there? Mordecai wouldn't have gone off somewhere weeks away from the hideout unless he was leaving the gang, and from what Smoke said about him, there's never been any indication that he wanted to do that. He's been content to let his big brother, Rudolph, call the shots.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Preacher said. “What you're sayin' makes sense, but we ain't got no proof of it. And there's a whole heap o' things in this world, younker, that
“Can't argue with that,” Matt said. “But still, I'm going to hope that we're not too far from the hideout nowâ”
He stopped short as the unmistakable
of rifle shots sounded in the night air, coming from a half-mile or so away.