Authors: William W. Johnstone
When Luke came to, he felt the surface he was lying on rocking back and forth and bouncing as well. Everything around him was utterly dark, so he couldn't tell where he was. The blackness was so absolute that he had to blink his eyes to be sure he actually had them open.
A pounding ache filled his head. That came as no surprise to him. He had been knocked senseless enough times in his life to recognize the feeling as the aftermath of another brutal assault.
It was a good thing he had a thick skull, he thought.
When he tried to remember what had happened to him, at first he couldn't. Then the details began to seep back into his brain, fuzzy and disjointed at first, but eventually they formed a picture which made a sort of sense, although it left many questions unanswered. He tried it out by thinking through it.
A group of menâhalf a dozen, he estimated, although there could have been moreâhad ridden into Skunk Creek looking for him. They must have been on his trail for a while and had finally caught up to him in the squalid little settlement.
Rather than searching for him building by building, they had figured he would show up at the livery stable sooner or later and had gone there. They had taken over the place and waited in the shadows. The Swede must have had several guns pointed at him the whole time he was talking to Luke.
The men had told the Swede Luke's name and ordered the man to make sure of his identity when he came in. That explained the Swede's odd behavior. He had been in fear for his life and had been trying to follow the orders the mysterious visitors had given him. As soon as those strangers were certain that Luke was the man they were after, they had jumped him, had kicked and stomped and hit him until he was out cold.
That brought him right up to the moment, Luke thought. The questions that remained were:
Who were these men?
Who had sent them after him, and why?
And what was he going to do about it?
He could answer the last of those questions. For the moment he would do nothing. He was tied hand and foot, with his arms pulled back and his wrists lashed together behind him. He checked, and another rope ran from his bound wrists down to his equally fettered ankles, pulling him into an odd, uncomfortable shape that left him totally helpless.
Sooner or later, though, his captors would have to cut him loose, and when they did . . .
His mouth stretched in a wry grin at the thought. When they did, more than likely he would still be helpless, because he was bound so tightly that he couldn't feel his hands or feet. He wouldn't be able to stand up or grip a gun.
He had to wait and be patient. If they ever gave him a chance, he needed to be able to grab it.
In the meantime, the best thing to do might be to investigate his surroundings. The unsteady motion made him a little sick, but he tried to ignore it. It would help if he kept himself occupied. He couldn't move much, but he managed to squirm to one side until he came up against a wall.
He rolled so that he could explore the wall's surface with his hands. It felt like the same sort of thick, slightly rough planks that were underneath him. He twisted, pushed with his feet, and worked himself up into a sitting position with his back leaning against the wall and his legs drawn up to the side.
Luke had been on a few boats in his time. The rocking motion reminded him of being at sea. It wasn't bad enough for that, he decided. He became aware of a steady, rhythmic thudding, and that told him what he wanted to know.
The sound came from the hooves of a horse or mule team striking a road. He was in an enclosed wagon with the bed suspended on leather thoroughbraces that were old and not very strong anymore, hence the swaying and bouncing.
Luke scooted himself along the wall to his left until he reached a corner. The sound of the horses' hooves wasn't as loud here, so he assumed he was farther away from the team, which would make this a rear corner.
Inch by inch, he slid over to the other rear corner. His best estimate was that the wagon was eight feet wide.
He continued his awkward explorations and determined that the closed wagon bed was roughly eight feet by ten feet. He got his feet under him, braced his back against the wall as best he could with his hands tied behind him, and tried to stand up. That took him a while, as well. He hadn't straightened to his full height when the top of his head bumped the ceiling.
The dimensions of his temporary prison were familiar. Even though he hadn't found them, he would have bet that steel rings were set into the floor so that chains could be attached to them.
He was in a jail wagon, the same sort of vehicle into which he had prodded countless prisoners at gunpoint over the long years he'd been a bounty hunter.
That realization made him lean his head against the wall and laugh. It seemed as if the universe was having its own private little joke at his expense.
After thinking about it for a while, he decided that it was night outside. Even a tightly constructed prison wagon had tiny gaps between the boards in places, and daylight would come through them.
That theory was confirmed after an interminable time when a very faint gray glow appeared here and there. Dawn was approaching.
Luke had already figured out that the rain had stopped because he couldn't hear it anymore. He wondered what direction his captors had gone from Skunk Creek.
He also wondered if somebody in the settlement would let his prisoners out of the smokehouse when the Swede told everybody about what had happened.
the men who had captured Luke had left the Swede alive.
Luke hoped they had. He didn't really care what happened to Andy Eggleston or the three outlaws who had stolen horses from the Block K. If the blacksmith had any sense, he would turn Eggleston over to the law himself and collect the reward. The three horse thieves might wind up being hanged as, well, horse thieves.
Once they tried to kill him, they deserved whatever they got, as far as Luke was concerned, although they had seemed more stupid than vicious.
The light coming through the cracks got brighter. Luke saw that he'd been right about the steel rings bolted to the floor. He was surprised that his captors hadn't fastened his bonds to one of them. Maybe they had figured he was trussed up good enough like he was that he couldn't get away.
So far they would have been right.
The light got brighter, and eventually the wagon lurched to a halt. Luke lifted his head and yelled, “Damned well about time! Get me out of here!”
He didn't see any point in pretending not to be awake. They were going to be checking on him anyway, he was sure of that.
He heard a clunk that he recognized as the sound of a padlock being unlocked, then the lock rattled in a hasp. The door swung back, and after being locked up in absolute darkness and then thick gloom for so long, the light that came into the wagon was blindingly bright to Luke's eyes. He tried not to flinch from it but couldn't help himself.
“Haw! Squeamish as a rabbit!”
The loud, harsh voice made Luke angry, but there was nothing he could do about the scorn . . . other than mark it up in his mind as one more score to settle later.
He couldn't see the man who had spoken except as a dark, hulking shape against the light. The man went on. “A couple of you boys get in there and drag him out. I want to get a look at this hombre who's so important to the boss.”
More shapes loomed. Luke felt the wagon shift under him as men climbed into it. Strong, rough hands took hold of him and dragged him toward the opening. When they reached it, they dumped him on the ground outside.
His eyes had started to adjust by now. He could make out more details about the men who stood around him, grinning. The leader seemed to be an ugly man in a long sheepskin coat. Tufts of rust-colored hair stuck out from under the battered old hat with a tightly curled brim that was tugged down on his head. With his stringy neck and beak of a nose, the man reminded Luke of a buzzard.
“You know who I am, bounty hunter?” the man said.
“Can't say as Iâ” Luke began, then stopped as a name popped into his memory. “Hell! You're Dakota Charlie Payne.”
“That's right,” the man said proudly. “Dakota Charlie his own self. Meanest man north of the Missouri River. That's what the newspapers done called me. You can look it up.”
“Hear lately you've been riding withâ”
Once again Luke stopped short as a memory came back to him. Payne just grinned wider and said, “Ay-yuh, that's right, Jensen. I ride with the Kroll brothers. All these fellers do. Rudolph Kroll, he's the one sent us to fetch you. I reckon he ain't happy with what you done, catchin' his little brother and bein' responsible for him gettin' sentenced to hang and all.”
“Mordecai Kroll had it coming to him. He deserved whatever he got.”
“He ain't got nothin' yet,” Payne said. “They're still waitin' to drop him through the trapdoor.”
Luke hadn't known that. He hadn't kept up closely with the story, so he had assumed that Mordecai had gone to the gallows before now.
The fact that the younger Kroll brother was still alive might put a different face on this whole affair.
Payne turned to the men with him and said, “Somebody get a fire goin' and boil some coffee. We'll stay here and let the hosses rest for a spell 'fore we get back on the trail.”
“Where are you taking me?” Luke asked.
“I thought I done told you that. To see Rudolph. Don't know what he's got in mind to do to you, but I'll bet a heap it won't be pleasant.” Payne waved a hand. “Throw him back in the wagon.”
“Wait just a damned minute!” Luke objected. “Can't you even cut a man loose long enough to tend to his needs?”
“Go ahead and piss yourself,” Payne said with a vicious grin. “Reckon you'll be doin' that by the time Rudolph gets through with you, anyway!”
Luke had been through some hellish experiences in his life, including being shot and left for dead, but the next ten days were as bad as anything he had ever experienced. From dawn to dusk, and often after dark as well if the trail was marked well enough, Dakota Charlie Payne kept the wagon and its outriders moving. From the few brief glimpses Luke got of the outside world, he thought they were heading in a generally southerly direction. Maybe a little southwest.
He didn't see much of the world, though. For the most part his entire universe was the inside of the jail wagon. His muscles grew so cramped and weak from being tied up that he wasn't sure he would ever be able to walk normally again. Payne and his other captors gave him barely enough food and water to subsist on, which contributed to his weakened condition. His beard and hair grew, and he supposed he was starting to look like a man who had been trapped on a deserted island.
“Robinson Crusoe Jensen,” he muttered one day as he remembered the character from a novel he'd read.
The heat during the day began to grow worse, which was another indication that they were heading south. It had been chilly in Wyoming, but nothing like it would be later in the autumn and winter. The season was still early enough in autumn that the days in certain parts of the southwest could be quite warm, even hot.
He had caught up to Mordecai Kroll in Arizona, Luke recalled. There was a good chance the gang's hideout wasn't too far from where Luke had captured Mordecai. So the heat made sense if Payne was really taking him to Rudolph Kroll.
The brutal outlaw had no reason to lie about that, as far as Luke could figure.
Luke could tell by the slant of the wagon when they were traveling through mountainous areas. They had been climbing for a full day, moving slower because of the angle, when the trail leveled out for a short distance, then began to descend slightly.
They had just gone through a pass, Luke thought. He had no idea where and it might not matter, but he had been thinking about anything and everything, trying to keep his mind strong even as his body grew weaker. During the endless hours he had quoted poetry to himself, recounted the plots of numerous novels, even quoted Scripture. Anything to keep his brain from sinking into a mental morass.
The quality of the light told him it was the middle of the day, but a short time later the wagon stopped. That wasn't too unusualâPayne had called midday halts beforeâbut Luke sensed that something was different about this one.
One of the men unlocked the wagon. As usual, several of them stood guard, holding rifles or pistols, while two men dragged Luke out of the wagon and dumped him on the ground.
This time, however, Dakota Charlie Payne approached Luke with an enormous Bowie knife in his hand.
“I could carve you from gullet to gizzard with this, Jensen,” Payne said as he flourished the knife. “It'd be just what a lowdown bounty hunter deserves, too. But you know I ain't gonna do it.”
He hooked a boot toe under Luke's shoulder and rolled him onto his belly. A second later Luke felt the tug as Payne used the Bowie to cut the rope holding his wrists and ankles together.
That allowed his legs to straighten out. Cramped muscles screamed a protest at that. Luke tightened his jaw. He wasn't going to let them hear a sound out of him, not even a whimper.
A moment later, he could tell that Payne was cutting the ropes on his ankles, too. They came free.
“Get him on his feet,” Payne ordered.
Luke's feet were so numb they might as well not have existed. He could only hope that they weren't permanently damaged. Four men took hold of him, two on each arm, and lifted him. They set him upright. His legs folded up like strings. He would have collapsed if the outlaws hadn't been holding him.
“Walk him around some,” Payne snapped. “We got to get him movin' again.”
The men dragged Luke back and forth as they tried to force his muscles to work. His legs flopped limply at first, but then he felt sensations creeping into them again. Even his feet began to prickle with an intense feeling of pins and needles. He gritted his teeth again in order to remain stubbornly silent.
While they were tormenting him like this, he looked around. They were on a lane lined with junipers, but through the gaps between the trees he saw rugged peaks rising all around. This was a high canyon in some mountain range that was unknown to him, although some of the landscape did look vaguely familiar as if he had seen it years earlier.
In the distance, a creek with cottonwoods growing along it twisted its way through the canyon. Luke's gaze followed the stream to where it flowed past a number of buildings. He saw barns, corrals, what looked like a bunkhouse. This was a ranch, he thought, or at least it had been at one time.
He began taking a few stumbling steps. He still would have fallen if not for the men holding him up, but he could tell that his iron constitution was asserting itself. Given time, rest, and exercise, he wouldn't be a cripple after all, and that knowledge came as a huge relief to him.
Of course, he reminded himself, if Rudolph Kroll killed him five minutes from now, it wouldn't really matter, would it?
He had already figured out that this was the Kroll gang's hideout. Had to be. Why else would Payne and the others have brought him here? Why else would they be forcing him to walk? They were about to turn him over to Rudolph Kroll.
“All right,” Payne said after a few minutes. “Move the wagon.”
One of the men climbed to the driver's seat and lifted the reins. The team of horses hauled the wagon out of the way, and for the first time Luke got a good look at the main house. It sat behind a flagstone patio at the top of about twenty terracelike steps. At each end of each of those steps sat a potted cactus.
The house itself was big and sprawling, with a red tile roof in the Spanish style and a walled balcony on the second floor. The windows were decorated with wrought iron. It might have been the home of a Spanish don outside Seville, Luke thought.
The man waiting at the top of the steps was a far cry from a nobleman, though. He was an outlaw, plain and simple, an evil man with a hawklike face and a dark mustache. Luke recognized him from plenty of wanted posters.
Standing behind Kroll and to one side was a massive bear of a man wearing a long, beaded vest and a flat-crowned brown hat. Probably Kroll's segundo, Luke thought.
Kroll had his arms crossed over his chest as he looked down the steps and regarded Luke with an expression of pure hatred. Clearly, he was waiting for something.
“All right, Jensen,” Payne said as he prodded Luke in the back with a rifle barrel. “Up you go.”
Luke didn't know if he could make it up the steps, but pride stiffened his back and his legs. He lifted his right foot and felt the muscles trembling, but they obeyed his commands well enough for him to set the foot on the first step. Now to see if the leg would support his weight when he started up.
It did. The steps were wide enough that he had to plant both feet on each one, shuffle forward, lift his right foot and then his left foot to the next one, and repeat the process. It was slow going, but he kept his head up and met Rudolph Kroll's cold stare with an equally chilly, defiant one of his own.
Kroll might be about to kill him, but whatever his fate might be, Luke was going to meet it on his own two feet, and he was thankful for that.
It seemed to take an hour for him to climb the steps, although he knew it wasn't really that long. Finally, he lifted a foot to the patio and forced his body up for the last time. He stood there facing Kroll, who stood ten feet away.
“Luke Jensen,” Kroll said, his voice deep and powerful but with an undertone of harshness that made it sound almost like the growl of an animal. “I've been looking forward to this meeting.”
“That makes one of us,” Luke rasped. He hadn't used his voice much during the journey here. It sounded like the squalling of a rusty gate to his ears.
“Do you know why I've had you brought to Massacre Canyon?”
“That's what you call this place?”
“The hacienda probably had some other name. Don't ask me what it was. But the area is known among the Apaches as Massacre Canyon, which probably refers to something that happened here, I don't know.” Kroll gave a curt shake of his head. “None of that's important. I had you brought here because of two brothers.”
“You and Mordecai,” Luke said. “Tell me, have they stretched his neck at the end of a hang rope yet?”
Luke didn't want to be tortured any more than he already had been. He would rather goad Kroll into pulling a gun and shooting him, if it came down to a choice like that. A quick, clean death, even if it was at the hands of an ugly bastard.
But surprisingly, Rudolph Kroll smiled. He said, “You're only half right, Jensen. This is about Mordecai, all right. And no, they haven't hanged him. I've paid off enough lawyers and politicians to keep him alive for a while. It's really about two other brothers, though: you and your brother Smoke.”
Luke's breath froze in his throat. His heart seemed to stop in his chest. Was Kroll going to go after Smoke to complete his vengeance?
He might wind up with more trouble on his hands than he expected if he did that.
“You see, I know all about the famous Smoke Jensen,” Kroll went on, obviously very pleased with himself now. “His exploits are legendary. If everything that's been written about him is true, there's never been anyone else like him in the history of the frontier.”
“All those yarns just scratch the surface,” Luke muttered.
“I'm glad to hear that,” Kroll said. “It makes me even more convinced that I made the right decision. You see, I figure if there's anyone who can get my brother, Mordecai, out of the hands of the law and bring him back here safely to me, it's the famous Smoke Jensen. And that's exactly what he's going to do.”
Kroll's face twisted into a hate-filled snarl.
“Or else I'll send his own brother back to him carved into bloody little pieces. Isn't that right, Galt?”
The bearlike man in the beaded vest fingered the handle of a machete tucked behind the red sash around his waist and smiled in anticipation.