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Authors: Jon Sharpe

The Trailsman 317

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HORSE SENSE

The Ovaro had raised its head and was staring to the south with its ears pricked.

Mabel snapped, “I am aware of how vicious grizzlies can be, but I am more afraid of wolves since they travel in packs.”

“Wolves hardly ever attack people,” Fargo set her straight. “The only time I ever heard about it, it was winter, and the wolves were so starved they were skin and bones.”

The Ovaro was still staring. Fargo sat up and peered into the benighted woods but saw only the dark.

“Wild beasts are wild beasts,” Mabel flatly declared. “I would as soon not end up in the belly of one.”

Fargo slid a hand to his Henry. The Ovaro looked at him and stamped a front hoof, then stared to the south again.

“What is going on between you and your horse?” Mabel asked. “Why did he just do that?”

“Something is out there,” Fargo said. Something, or someone.

“I have not heard anything.”

“His ears are better than ours.”

“For all you know it could be a raccoon or a deer,” Mabel teased. “You worry too much.”

That was when thunder boomed, and twin flashes of fire spat hot lead….

THE
TRAILSMAN #317

MOUNTAIN MYSTERY

by Jon Sharpe

SIGNET
Published by New American Library, a division of
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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices:
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

The first chapter of this book previously appeared in
Beyond Squaw Creek
, the three hundred sixteenth volume in this series.

ISBN: 978-1-1012-1170-0

Copyright © Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2008
All rights reserved

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PUBLISHER'S NOTE
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, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

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The Trailsman

Beginnings…they bend the tree and they mark the man. Skye Fargo was born when he was eighteen. Terror was his midwife, vengeance his first cry. Killing spawned Skye Fargo, ruthless, cold-blooded murder. Out of the acrid smoke of gunpowder still hanging in the air, he rose, cried out a promise never forgotten.

The Trailsman they began to call him all across the West: searcher, scout, hunter, the man who could see where others only looked, his skills for hire but not his soul, the man who lived each day to the fullest, yet trailed each tomorrow. Skye Fargo, the Trailsman, the seeker who could take the wildness of a land and the wanting of a woman and make them his own.

 

The Colorado Rockies, 1861—deep in the mountains
lurked deceit and death.

1

It was not quite noon when Skye Fargo realized he was being followed. Drawing rein, he shifted in the saddle and scanned his back trail. His lake blue eyes narrowed. A big man, broad of shoulder and narrow of waist, he wore buckskins and a white hat caked with the dust of many miles. A red bandanna added a splash of color. A Colt with well-worn grips was in his holster, a Henry rifle nestled snug in his saddle scabbard.

Fargo did not see anyone but he had learned to trust his instincts. Since daybreak he had been winding along a seldom-used trail that was taking him deep into the heart of the Sawatch Range.

Thick timber hemmed the trail. Ahead rose the towering peaks of the central Rockies, as remote and untamed a region as anywhere on the continent. The haunt of wild beasts and scarcely less wild men, it had yet to be explored. Even the gold seekers, the greedy horde that poured into the Rocky Mountains in '58 and '59, had not penetrated this far.

Fargo was in his element. He liked untamed country. He got a thrill out of venturing where few ever set foot. The dangers that gave others pause did not deter him. He considered them an ordinary part of frontier life.

But that did not mean Fargo let himself grow careless. Far from it. His senses were second to none, and his keen ears had detected, faint and far back, the dull thud of a heavy hoof.

Fargo gigged his Ovaro into the spruce and pines, drew rein, and placed his right hand on his Colt.

It could be hostiles. A small tribe known as the Untilla claimed that region as their own, and they resented white intrusion. In the early days a few trappers had gone into their land in search of beaver and never been seen again.

It could be outlaws. The Sawatch Range was a haven for lawbreakers anxious to avoid a noose. They stayed deep in the mountains, coming out from time to time to kill, plunder, and rape.

It could simply be a fellow frontiersman. But another lesson Fargo had learned was to never, ever, take anything for granted. A person lived longer that way.

The minutes crawled on a snail's belly. Somewhere a raven cawed. Then a squirrel chattered irately, telling Fargo that whoever was behind him was close. Hunching over the saddle horn, Fargo tensed, his gaze glued to the trail.

Around the last bend came a rider, a greasy beanpole in filthy buckskins and a floppy brown hat. Stubble specked his poor excuse for a chin. He had brown, watery eyes and a wide nose out of all proportion to his scarecrow face. His sorrel was coated with as much dust as Fargo's Ovaro. In the crook of his elbow he cradled a rifle. At his mount's side trotted a large hound with floppy ears.

Fargo was set to jab his spurs against the pinto when another rider appeared.

The second man was stocky and had a thatch of corn-colored hair. He, too, wore buckskins. His, too, were filthy. He wore a blue cap, his sole vanity, and had a bowie in a belt sheath.

Again Fargo went to show himself. A third rider gave him brief pause. Anger gripped him, and he mentally swore.

The third rider was a woman. Curly black hair spilled over her slender shoulders, framing a face that by any standard was uncommonly lovely. Emerald eyes roved over the spectacular scenery with the childlike wonder of someone new to the mountains. Her riding outfit and boots were clean and well kept. She wore a pearl-handled Remington butt-forward on her left hip.

Fargo let them go by. Then he reined the Ovaro onto the trail behind them. “Some folks don't have the brains of a tree stump.”

Startled, the woman shifted in her saddle, her hand dropping to her Remington. “Oh, it's you!” she exclaimed.

Her two soiled escorts also whirled and started to level their rifles. The hound uttered a growl and then was silent.

“Fargo!” the beanpole in the lead blurted.

“Cyst,” Fargo responded curtly. He focused on the female. “I can't wait to hear your excuse.”

Her cheeks flushing, the young woman did not answer right away. When she did, her voice held a note of resentment. “The last I heard, this is a free country.”

“We will carve that on your headstone,” Fargo said.

“Poppycock!” the woman declared. “You are trying to scare me, just like you did before. But I did not listen then and I will not be intimidated now. I have come too far, invested too much time and money.”

Fargo gigged the Ovaro up next to her bay and met her glare with one of his own. “You are too damn contrary for your own good, Mabel Landry.”

Her back stiffening, Mabel said heatedly, “I will thank you to use a civil tongue in the presence of a lady. And I will remind you that it is my brother who has gone missing. I am entitled to do as I see fit in my quest to learn his fate.”

“If you planned all along to come this far, why did you bother to hire me?” Fargo asked.

“Because everyone says you are the best,” Mabel answered frankly. “The best scout, the best tracker, the best at living off the land. If anyone can find Chester, it is you.” She paused. “And if you will recall, I asked to come with you but you would not let me. If anyone deserves to be called pigheaded, I suggest that you merit the title more than I.”

Fargo sighed. Yes, she had badgered him about coming along, and he had refused, for her own good. That was back in Denver, where she had approached him about searching for her sibling, who went off into the mountains over a year ago and not been seen since. “Maybe I should give you back the five hundred dollars and we will go our separate ways with no hard feelings.”

Mabel Landry's features softened. “Please. No. That is not necessary. I still wish to retain your services. All I ask is that we hunt for him together.”

Frowning, Fargo stared off at the high peaks. Several were mantled with snow even though it was summer. To the northwest reared the highest, Mt. Elbert. He had read in a newspaper that they claimed it was over fourteen thousand feet high. Almost three miles up into the sky.

“Well?” Mabel prompted.

Fargo looked at her. She had come this far, and she would not go back. That she refused to heed his advice rankled, but it was her life to throw away if she wanted. He mentioned as much.

“You are terribly melodramatic—do you know that?” Mabel criticized. “Nothing has happened to me yet, and I suspect nothing will. The tales people spin about the perils to be found out here are greatly exaggerated, in my opinion.”

“Your opinion is worthless,” Fargo said. “But since you are so determined to get yourself killed, I reckon I might as well do what I can to keep you alive for as long as I can.”

“Your compassion overwhelms me,” Mabel said sarcastically. But she grinned as she said it.

Fargo nodded at Cyst and Cyst's stocky companion. “What about these two?”

“What about them?” Mabel rejoined. “I hired them to bring me to the settlement you told me about.”

“I never said Skagg's Landing was a settlement,” Fargo set her straight. There were a few cabins and a trading post—that was it.

“Whatever it is, it is the last place my brother wrote me from, and the logical place to start looking for him in earnest.”

“I do not need helpers,” Fargo said.

“I paid Mr. Cyst and Mr. Welt in advance to bring me to Skagg's Landing,” Mabel said, “so they might as well go with us the rest of the way. Particularly since we are only a day out, or so they have told me.”

Fargo frowned.

“What is the matter?” Mabel asked. “You act as if you do not like them. But they have brought me all the way from Denver and been perfect if crude gentlemen.” She smirked at him. “You do not have a monopoly on trustworthiness, you know.”

“You sure have a way with words,” Fargo complimented her.

“Don't avoid the issue. I insist Mr. Cyst and Mr. Welt accompany us as far as the Landing. That is, if they want to.”

Cyst was quick to say, “Oh, we want to, ma'am. Turning around and heading back now would be pointless.” He grinned, displaying yellow teeth. “Besides, our horses will need a few days to rest up.”

“That they will,” Welt echoed.

Fargo would as soon shoot them where they sat but he was not a cold-blooded killer. It came from having something Cyst and Welt did not—a conscience. That Mabel had made it this far was no small wonder. “You two ride in front of me at all times.”

Welt's jaw muscles twitched. “I take that as an insult, mister.”

“Take it any damn way you want,” Fargo responded.

Once more Cyst was quick with his tongue. “That's all right, Welt. It is just his style. It does not mean anything.”

“The hell it doesn't.” Welt would not let it drop. “I know when I am being called no-account and I do not like it.” He started to level his rifle.

Just like that, Fargo's Colt cleared leather. The click of the hammer turned Welt to stone. “How dumb are you?”

Mabel Landry made a sniffing sound. “Honestly, now. Was that really called for?”

“I am not fond of being shot,” Fargo informed her.

Cyst had also frozen but now he forced a smile, and coughed. “Maybe you are right. Maybe riding together isn't a good idea. How would it be if Welt and I rode on to Skagg's Landing by ourselves? That is, if Miss Landry has no objection.”

“I paid you to take me the entire way,” Mabel said, “but under the circumstances, yes, perhaps you should ride on.”

“I am not giving back any of my share of the money,” Welt said sullenly while staring at the muzzle of Fargo's Colt.

“You may keep it,” Mabel said.

Cyst beamed. “Fine.” He gestured at Fargo. “Until we meet again.” To the hound he said, “Heel, Devil!” Then he flicked his reins.

Fargo let them ride off. Short of shooting them, he had no grounds to stop them. When they were out of sight he twirled the Colt into his holster and clucked to the Ovaro. Within a few yards Mabel Landry was alongside him, and she was not pleased.

“I hope you are happy.”

“To be shed of them? Yes.”

“You were rude,” Mabel criticized. “Those men did nothing to you yet you treated them like they were scum.”

“They are,” Fargo said.

“Oh really? And what, pray tell, do you know about them that I do not? Or do you base your opinion on nothing but thin air?”

Fargo was tired of her smug attitude. “Cyst has been in these mountains for going on five years now. He drifts where he pleases, and wherever he goes, people have a habit of turning up dead with their pokes missing.”

“If that is true,” Mabel challenged, “why hasn't he been caught and put on trial?”

“The law can't arrest someone on a hunch,” Fargo said. “They need cause, and Cyst always has an alibi.”

Mabel was still not satisfied. “If he is as dangerous as all that, why am I still alive? They could have killed me a hundred times over.”

“You paid them in advance,” Fargo reminded her.

“Implying they already had most of my money,” Mabel said. “But I still have a hundred dollars on me, and they are aware of the fact. Why didn't they slit my throat one night while I slept, and help themselves?”

“It is a mystery,” Fargo admitted.

“Do you know what I think?” Mabel asked, and then did not wait to hear what he thought. “I think you overreacted. I think you unjustly accuse Mr. Cyst of crimes he did not commit. I think that when you see him again, you owe him an apology.”

“And I think that is as likely to happen as it is for gold to grow on trees,” Fargo replied.

Mabel snorted. “You might well be the best at what you do but you are awful short on humility. The mature thing to do when you make a mistake is to own up to it.”

Fargo was tempted to give her a piece of his mind, and then some. She was a fountain of ignorance, an accident waiting to happen. That she had made it this far was more luck than anything else—luck, and whatever mysterious reason Cyst had for not doing her in. Which reminded him. “How soon after I left Denver did you head out after me?”

“Oh, not more than a couple of hours,” Mabel said. “I was furious when you refused to bring me, and I marched down to the stable to hire a horse to come after you. Mr. Cyst and Mr. Welt happened to be there, overheard me talking to the stable owner, and offered to escort me.”

“So you did not have it planned in advance?”

“Goodness, no. I had expected to come with you, if you will remember.” Mabel ducked under a limb that jutted out over the trail. “Ironic, is it not? Were Mr. Cyst as evil as you claim, and if he had murdered me along the way, my death would be your fault for not letting me ride with you.”

“You should have stayed in Denver,” Fargo said. “At least there you would be safe.”

“Oh, bosh. You fret too much over trifles.”

“You are as green as grass,” Fargo said.

“You can quit trying to scare me,” Mabel told him. “I am as safe here as I would be anywhere.”

No sooner were the words out of her ruby red mouth than the undergrowth rustled and out ambled a black bear.

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