Authors: Jake Logan
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished . . .
“You move a muscle and you're a dead man,” the mail clerk said.
Slocum laughed harshly and sat up.
“Your gun jammed. I saved you. And then it looks like you saved me, so we're even. Thanks.”
The bullet ripping through the crown of his hat sent the Stetson flying. Slocum stared at the mail clerk, who had cast aside his Âsix-Âshooter in favor of a smaller pistol that had been stashed in his vest pocket. The derringer almost disappeared in the man's grip, but from the determination on the man's face, death was about to visit Slocum . . .
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SLOCUM AND THE BULLET EXPRESS
A Jove Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright Â© 2014 by Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-63503-2
Jove Âmass-Âmarket edition / April 2014
Cover illustration by Sergio Giovine.
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.
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Being so close to the six-by-Ânine-Âfoot iron cage where San Diego kept its prisoners made John Slocum edgy. He touched the Âebony-Âhandled Colt Navy slung in a Âcross-Âdraw holster at his left hip and considered his chances. The brick courthouse was filled with men sporting battered tin badges and looking even more nervous than he was. He couldn't keep himself from staring at a small section of the wall near the entrance where a dozen Âbrittle-Âedged, yellowed wanted posters had been nailed to a board. Some of the pictures might have carried his likeness. Slocum had done enough in his day to deserve a place in this rogues' gallery, but none was his that he saw.
For that, he heaved a sigh of relief because after the deadly gunplay north of town a week back, there could have been. He forced himself not to react when a clerk called his name and impatiently gestured for him to come forward. Leaving the tight knot of men that had been rounded up, Slocum went to the desk, where the mousy clerk shuffled through stacks of Âink-Âsplotched papers.
“I told the deputy what I saw.”
The clerk looked up. His eyes didn't quite focus. Slocum stepped back a half pace to make it even harder for the nearsighted man to ever identify him. If he hadn't had his horse shot out from under him, he would have left town long ago. If he hadn't been stone broke, he would have left. And if ÂheâÂ
“Do you want to spend some time in the cell?” The clerk jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the iron cage ominously empty at the rear of the building. “I can get a judge to sentence you for contempt of court just like that.” He snapped his fingers.
The sharp pop made many of those rounded up with Slocum reach for their Âsix-Âshooters. This caused the keyed-up deputies in the courthouse to go for their pistols. After a tense moment, everyone took their hands off their Âsix-Âshooters.
The clerk never noticed. He squinted, trying to bring Slocum into focus. He impatiently motioned for Slocum to step closer to the desk. Slocum stood his ground.
“I saw the man with the red bandanna throw down and fire on the man sitting in the chair.”
“Did the seated man go for a gun?”
“I didn't see that he had a Âsix-Âgun,” Slocum said.
The saloon across the town plaza had been crowded because of the nickel whiskey being offered. A new shipment had arrived and the barkeep claimed he didn't have room to store it before it got stolen, so he wanted to sell off fifty gallons of prime Kentucky ÂwhiskeyâÂnot trade whiskey, by any ÂmeansâÂas fast as he could. The discount had pulled in thirsty men from all over San Diego along with their desire to be first in line.
“So Mr. Goodwin wasn't armed?”
“If he was the man in the chair, I didn't see him with a gun.” Slocum wondered at the uproar over one man's death. He shouldn't have but he asked, “Who was he? The dead man?”
The clerk dipped his pen, scratched a few jagged lines on his report, then looked up.
“You aren't a local? Harry Goodwin is the son of the owner of Far Orient Shipping.”
“A big business?”
“None bigger. If Far Orient pulled out of San Diego and went north to Frisco, like Old Man Goodwin's been threatening to do, San Diego would be hurt worse than in the fire back in '72. That only destroyed buildings and burnt up some folks who weren't quick enough to get away. This would kill jobs, and most all of the goods that come through here would disappear. The S&P Railroad terminus here would get moved up to Frisco, more 'n likely, and not even the Mormons would want to come back to help build. Now, did you see the son of a bitch shoot Mr. Goodwin?”
Before Slocum could say a word, a Âbull-Âthroated roar came from the courthouse door.
“He's here. I got people to say he's here and I want him!”
Slocum saw a mountain of bone and gristle and pure mean filling the doorway. The man wore filthy buckskins, bandoliers slung in an X across his massive chest, and pistols at either hip. A fiery red beard shot with gray or maybe debris from his last meal hung down a full foot from his chin. His florid face almost vanished in a forest of beard, bushy eyebrows, and wild hair that hung down to his broad shoulders. He shuffled forward, moving more like a bear than a man. But Slocum knew a bear could outrun a racehorse. Such power and speed could be locked within this man because of the way he shifted his weight lightly from one foot to the other as he moved. Moccasins whispered on the polished wood floor as he pushed his way into the crowded and suddenly silent lobby.
“I want him! I'm Big Joe Joseph and I got a warrant for him. I'm gonna collect my hunnerd dollars! He's mine and I'll strangle any man what says different!”
The deputies who had herded everyone into the courthouse to give statements turned to the huge man. One stepped up, holding his rifle at port arms and thinking he could back off the bounty hunter. The deputy went flying with a single backhanded swipe.
“There's the varmint what held up the San Dismas bank 'n' kilt three decent citizens.”
Eyes as green as the ocean eyes fixed on Slocum. Big Joe's hands closed into fists the size of quart jars. He gripped down so hard the crunching noise again silenced the growing murmur in the courthouse. Moving as light as a feather, Big Joe came straight for Slocum.
Killing the man would be declared Âself-Âdefense. With so many lawmen in the room, he'd have good ÂwitnessesâÂbut one of them was bound to ask the unwanted question of what the bounty hunter meant about a bank robbery. That hadn't been anything to lay at Slocum's feet, not legitimately. He had been an innocent bystander, just as he had been outside the saloon when that shooting took place, when the robbers had left the bank with their guns blazing. Two customers and a bank teller had ended up bleeding on the lobby floor. As the robbers left, two more had been injured. Slocum had drawn and fired at one of the bank robbers thinking of gunning him down, and that had been a mistake.
He was left with a fired Âsix-Âgun in his hand and the robbers beating a quick retreat when the marshal had shown up. In the confusion Slocum had been the only one identified. He had mounted and galloped off until a deputy shot the horse from under him. Slocum hadn't even fired back, creeping from the dead horse to a ditch and eventual escape thirty miles south to San Diego.
His luck hadn't gotten any better here.
“We got law here in San Diego,” the clerk said, squinting hard. “What's the commotion about?”
“Him,” Big Joe roared. “I want him!”
The bounty hunter lurched forward and grabbed for Slocum. If those massive arms had closed around him, Slocum knew the bear hug would have crushed the breath from his lungs. More likely, a broken spine would be the sorry result. He ducked, but Big Joe Joseph spun as gracefully as any dance hall girl performing “Hell's Gallop” onstage.
Slocum moved slower and with less agility, but sliding across the desk and shoving the clerk forward bought him a few seconds to escape. The clerk doubled over, gasped out, and croaked a warning to the assembled deputies. The sight of the clerk in distress and the bounty hunter swinging his mighty fists in wide circles above his head brought a rush to save him. A Âhalf-Âdozen deputies grabbed at Big Joe's greasy buckskins. Some fringe pulled off. Others missed entirely and ended up in a pile on the floor.
One smart deputy swung his rifle and caught the bounty hunter behind the knees. No matter how strong Big Joe was, withstanding such an attack wasn't humanly possible. He yelped and threw his arms up in the air as he toppled backward onto the floor. The deputies already in a pile swarmed to pin him down. Slocum saw a couple men tossed up into the air. Others used the butts of their rifles to crash down on Big Joe's head. One stock bounced off as if it had hit solid iron. Then Slocum finally got through the crowd of people between him and the back door. He popped outside and hesitated at the sight of the iron cage.
If he ended up inside, he was a goner. He had no way to prove he hadn't taken any part in the San Dismas bank robbery. If Big Joe was on his trail shouting about a reward, the wanted poster said “Dead or Alive” at the bottom. FromÂ the look of him, the bounty hunter wasn't the sort to worry over much about the “Alive” part.
Slocum ran a few yards, realized he was attracting attention from people going about their business in the San Diego plaza, and slowed to a walk. He pulled down his hat to protect his face from the ÂsunâÂand recognition. Not realizing it, he had headed for the harbor. Veering away, he walked south to a marketplace and lost himself in the crowd.
Tiring, Slocum found a spot in the shade and sank down, the building's adobe wall cool against his back. He slid his hat down even more on his forehead and peered out from under the brim to be certain no one came for him. For the first time since early morning and the hubbub outside the saloon, he had a chance to think. He had sought the cheap whiskey like so many others. The crowd pressing into the cantina provided him anonymity, and he had a nickel in his pocket for a shot of the prime tarantula juice. It never occurred to him a prominent citizen's son would be killed and he, along with the rest of the crowd, would be herded to the courthouse to give evidence against the killer.
Whoever had shot the Goodwin scion might also have some standing in the community. If so, that would explode into an out-of-control trial with each side blaming the other for the killing. Provocation, Âself-Âdefense, business dealings, the very financial health of the city added fuel to the fire. Slocum wanted no part of it, though he started to wonder if running solved anything. How he could have proven his innocence in the San Dismas bank robbery was a poser. Bringing in the real outlaws would have helped, but going after them would have put him on the same trail and given a marshal the excuse that he was only left behind, that he had been one of the murderous gang. With his horse shot from under him, tracking the bank robbers turned into an impossible task.
Running didn't set well with him, but Big Joe Joseph on his trail meant other bounty hunters knew of the reward. He could take care of the giant, given the time and proper spot for an ambush. Slocum had dealt with meaner men in his day, and putting a slug between the man's Âclose-Âset eyes would come easily. Killing someone who didn't need it if he got out of San Diego suited Slocum better than facing off with Big Joe in a bare knuckles fight.
He knew better than to hang around the docks. Shanghaiers worked all the ports along the Pacific coast. Being on a China clipper for two years when he felt better astride a horse was something he could forgo. Short of stealing a horse, though, he needed to get away fast and he had no idea how to do that. The decision came when he heard a distant train whistle. He looked up and studied everyone around him. Nobody paid him any attention. Rested, Slocum got to his feet and headed toward the freight train yards. New whistle blasts kept him moving until he reached a broad street where heavily laden wagons rolled toward a loading dock.
Slipping into a doorway, he watched and waited. A Âhalf-Âdozen trains were at the depot. Two of them loaded merchandise that had been shipped from halfway around the world and brought from the seagoing freighters, maybe those owned by the dead man's father. Three others had crews bustling about them, shouting and carrying on as they repaired broken rods and hammered on split boilers. The freight trains afforded him the best chance of getting out of town. Since it mattered less where he went than ending up in a cozy destination, he picked the train closest to the depot and made his way to it.
He had never ridden the rails by crawling up under a freight car and lying on the support rods dangling below the floor. More than once he had listened to a drunk's story of how dangerous it was. The story always ended with some daring escape from calamity. What Slocum got from the stories was that men traveled this way and did so often enough that the tall tales were likely only half true, if that.
The freight car he had chosen vibrated as a side door creaked along rusted rails and then slammed hard. The soft crunch followed by a click told him the door had been sealed using a lead slug with a wire run through it. Pliers clamped the lead disk down around the wire and pressed the company seal into the metal for surety. Anyone opening the door had to cut it off. Slocum listened for the crew to leave before slipping under the car and examining the rods.
Slocum wasn't fat but fitting between the freight car's floor and the spiderweb of rusted metal shafts would be tight. The slightest bump or turn as the train barreled along would crush him. He gripped one rod and exerted as much pressure on it as he could. The metal barely bent. Lying on his back, he grabbed the rod with both hands and put his feet against the freight car floor. Cinders cut into his back and made him wince as he pushed with his legs and pulled with his arms.
The rod began to bend slightly. He applied more pressure, grunting with the exertion. Rapidly approaching footsteps caused him to cease his effort and stretch back, cinders and railroad ties cutting into his back. From this vantage he saw rapidly scissoring legs coming toward him. He reached over for his Âsix-Âshooter when the man stopped not five feet away. If he looked under the car, he had to see Slocum.
“Gunther! Where you at, you lazy Kraut? Gunther!”
“I'm over here, you drunken Mick. You see him or did you leave your glasses at the whorehouse again?”
Slocum jerked around. A new set of legs came up on the other side of the train. He was trapped between the German and the Irish railroad detectives. His heart hammered away. Railroad detectives had the reputation of leaving bodies behind rather than running off trespassers or turning them over to the local law.
“Might be that Âfour-Âeyed clerk didn't see anyone at all,” Gunther said.
Both detectives walked to the far end of the car. One crossed to join the other.