His horse shot out from under him, the sheriff scrambles across ragged wasteland, desperate to outrun the four riders behind him. Bullets sing through the air as the chase comes to an abrupt halt at the lip of the Snake River Gorge. Far below him, the rapids roar through the canyon, and the lawman has no choice but to jump. He falls, slamming his head on a rock, and sinks into unconsciousness.
He washes up on the riverbank near a small farm, where young Teresa Bright drags him to safety. His rescuer finds no clue to his identity but a piece of a badge nestled in his front pocket. She and her father wash and dress the stranger’s wounds, but they can do nothing to bring back his shattered memory. Whoever this man is, there were killers on his tail, and they will not rest until he’s found.
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Dead Man's Guns
By Paul Lederer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2010 Logan Winters
All rights reserved.
His horse was down, shot out from under him and so he had no choice but to run on afoot. The five men behind him would catch up soon, but the broken ground would keep them from being able to race their ponies after him. Soon, though, they would break from the pine forest and shoot him down like a dog if he slowed his pace.
His own boots slipped out from under him as he ran across the rocky earth. Twice he fell, once losing his grip on his Colt revolver. Scrambling, he managed to retrieve it, although the three loads left in its cylinder would not be enough to deter his pursuers. They wanted him dead.
The running man's hair was in his eyes, his face streaked with sweat and dirt. He could hear their horses now, and glancing back he saw the first hunting man, riding a pinto pony, rifle in his hands, emerge from the verge of the forest. The running man's chest was burning, his legs were heavy as lead. He looked desperately for shelter, but saw none, no place to hide to make his last stand.
He drew up abruptly, a desolate curse rising from his throat. He had run himself out of luck. He knew now where he was, and there was no possible escape.
He stood on the rim-rock of the Snake River Gorge looking down at the raging river a hundred feet below him, the tumbling water frothing and surging as it roared its westward way out of the Yellowstone country toward the Columbia River. The water was roiling, angry and proud in its strength.
A shot rang out from behind him and then a second which tore through his shoulder, turning him half around with its violent impact. Five horsemen now appeared from the dark line of pine trees, all of them with guns blazing. The running man turned and leapt into space, rolling and tumbling toward the river below. Inside his skull, he felt the shock of an impact far greater than that of the searcher's rifle bullet and realized that he had hit his head against solid stone. He had a brief, confused glimpse of the sheer cliff, the surging white waters of the chill Snake River, the thin veil of high August clouds above, and then as he sank into the cold waters of the river and the rapids thundered around him, he remembered no more.
When Teresa Bright had filled the water buckets, she paused for a while to rinse her face and wash her feet in the cold, clear water of the river. Here where the gorge widened and the waters spread, calming themselves after their furious rush through the canyon, the current was swift, but no longer dangerous. Scattered light fell through the willow trees at the water's edge, scattering gold coins along the dark bank. A loon cried somewhere and frogs groused along the river's edge. She had removed her boots and eased nearer to the bank at her accustomed spot when she saw it bobbing against the shore among the cattails.
She did not scream or cry out but she backed swiftly away. She was a western woman, and she had seen much of violence. Still, the small blond girl was terrified. The man wore a red shirt and black jeans, both of which were badly torn. He was unmoving, beached on a sandbar a few yards from the riverbank.
She was sure that he was dead, since no one in memory, Indian or white, had ever navigated the Snake River rapids and lived.
She crept nearer to him, moving cautiously along the muddy bank of the river. Peering at him, she saw a man in his twenties, his face lean and sun-burned, a stripe of new scar across his jaw. His dark hair, now matted with mud and the blood of a recent injury, curled at the back of his neck. His broad hands looked strong and capable, and as Teresa studied them one of the dead man's fingers twitched.
Teresa's hands went to her mouth and she backed away, her eyes wider yet. The man's arm moved. Only slightly, but enough to demonstrate that there was life lingering in the motionless body. Gathering her skirts again, barefoot still, Teresa turned and ran, leaving her water pails behind.
The cabin was made of unbarked logs and rested on a low rocky rise among the dark pines. Teresa reached it, leaped up the swayed steps and banged open the plank door.
'Well, there you are at last,' the tiny old woman standing at the primitive rock and steel plate stove said. 'And where's the water you were sent for?'
'Where's Pa?' Teresa asked, unable to catch her breath.
'What is it?' the old woman demanded. She stood with a wooden spoon in her hand staring at the girl, her pinched features hardened with displeasure.
'I found a man along the river,' Teresa managed to say. 'Either dead or dying. I need Pa or Andy to go back with me.'
'Look around to the woodpile,' the old lady said without much concern or show of interest. She returned to her cooking, stirring the quietly burbling contents of a black iron pot.
Teresa left the house at a run, leapt from the porch and rounded the cabin corner to the woodpile. There, a lanky man wearing a faded red long-john shirt and twill trousers held up with suspenders was positioning a length of cordwood he intended to split with his axe. The day was cool, but he was perspiring. Now he lowered his axe and mopped his forehead with an old bandana as his daughter appeared. He frowned at her expression. He asked first: 'Indians?' his voice weary and anguished at once. They had faced too many Indian raids in their ten-year stand along the river.
'No, Pa,' Teresa said. She took her father's hand and tugged at him, all the while reporting what she had discovered along the river. Placing the axe carefully aside, her father picked up his battered flop hat, secured it on his head and collected his old army-issue .45-70 Springfield rifle.
Orson Bright was frowning heavily as he accompanied his daughter through the deep shade of the wind-swayed pines, hearing the constant rush of the big river beyond the tight ranks of the trees. They did not need more trouble around here. Not just now.
The trouble with Santana was barely over, costing Bright one of his two grown sons and now this Colbert bunch was prowling the timberlands. Approaching sixty years of age, Orson figured he had earned the right to live out his life in peace. It looked like it wasn't to be.
Tess – Teresa – slowed her eager pace as they approached the river's edge. Here the sunlight which revealed itself as slanting beams through the tall trees became brilliant, glinting off the long-flowing river. Tess halted and lifted a pointing finger. Orson nodded, gripping his rifle more tightly. Among the clotted cattails on the sandbar was a man, his boots dragging in the river current. Alive or dead, he could not tell, but Orson Bright disliked it either way. He took a deep breath and started forward, his face set grimly.
The river flowed on in its ceaseless way, its silver-blue face constantly changing. Orson gestured to Teresa to hold back, then he crossed the shallow inlet to where the man's body lay.
Crouching down, Orson lifted the motionless man's wrist and felt for a pulse. It was there, faint but steady. Orson rose heavily. One more problem to be dealt with. It would have been easier with a corpse. Dig a shallow grave and, after a few words from the Good Book, walk away.
Teresa watched from the riverbank, the breeze shifting her blond hair, her hands clasped together. Orson nodded to her.
'He's alive. Get your boots on and get on back to the house. He's too big for me to shoulder. If Andy hasn't come home yet, bring the mule to help us.' After a pause, Orson told Tess, who was busy tying her bootlaces, 'Best take the water pails along with you. Mother Rose will be peeved if you forget them a second time.'
Some of the water came in handy very soon. Mother Rose – Orson's deceased wife's mother – had a potful of it boiling away furiously on the stove as she cut the injured man's red shirt away with a pair of sewing scissors. Laying the stranger down on a cot in what had been Orson's other son's, Dan's, room before the gunman, Santana, had killed him, they quickly discovered the darker red stain on the faded shirt just below the collarbone.
'Bullet wound,' Orson had pronounced.
Mother Rose, whose pinched appearance gave a first impression of an uncaring crone, was only an old woman who had struggled long in the harsh West, losing her daughter and grandson to the land. Her habitual expression was a reflection of the unkind world, concealing a warm heart. She worked now with skilled, amazingly gentle fingers at the savage wound in the stranger's shoulder. Tess watched uncertainly from the doorway. Her father, in what might have seemed callous to a casual observer, had gone back outside to continue chopping firewood. It was simply that he could do nothing to help Rose, and his chore was a necessary one if they were to have heat and warm food.
'Who do you think he could be?' Teresa asked Mother Rose, expecting no answer. 'An outlaw, do you suppose?'
'Help me roll him over, Tess,' Rose said. 'I need to see if the bullet's passed through or if I have to go to carving.'
The choice of words sent a little shudder through Tess, but she went to the bedside of the dying man, and the women working together, managed to get him rolled onto his stomach. Not once did the badly injured man make a sound.
'Well, I'll be,' Rose said. 'Do you see that little pucker on his back here, Tess? That's the bullet, sure as blazes. That tells me he was shot from a distance, else it would have passed all the way through.'
'What do you have to do?' Teresa asked.
'Get me my six-inch knife,' Rose said. Tess looked uncertain, vaguely frightened. A smile actually creased Rose's pinched face. 'This is nothing, girl. No more than lancing a boil, which I've done many a time. Get the knife, scoot, and then I'll need you to hold the lantern right over where I'm working.'
True to Rose's prediction, the slug slid out past the incision easily. There was a flow of crimson blood, but nothing like Tess had expected and feared. They cleaned up the wounds, entrance and exit, as well as they could with lye soap and carbolic acid, and tightly wrapped a bandage of clean linen around the stranger's chest. Orson had returned and stood observing their handiwork.
'Well?' he asked.
'I don't know,' Rose said rising. 'It doesn't seem the bullet broke a bone, but he's in deep shock. Like when Paddy got kicked by that mule.'
'What do you mean?'
'Step over here,' the old woman said. 'On the back of his skull there's a lump the size of a goose egg. Whatever caused that might have done more damage than the rifle bullet. Could be his skull is cracked open. Could be he won't make it no matter what we do.' Rose was wiping her hands on her apron. She looked away from her patient and started toward the kitchen. 'Anyway, I got to fix supper now – somebody's got to do it.'
Orson went out as well, to wash up for supper. Teresa lingered for another minute, watching the young man who slept so deeply that it seemed he might never rise again. Mother Rose didn't think he would make it. Teresa wanted him to, wanted very much for the handsome young man to survive. She could have not explained her feelings; there was no explanation.
She only knew that she badly wanted the stranger to pull through somehow. She turned the lantern down low and went out to help with serving supper. Outside, soft rain had begun to fall across the pine forest.
'What are you going to do with him?' Andy Bright demanded around a mouthful of cornbread and beef stew. Tess looked across the table at her brother who now, in his late teens, had filled out across the chest and shoulders with solid muscle. His bullish neck supported a broad, manly face shaded with dark beard stubble. 'He sure can't stay here,' Andy continued. 'We don't even know who he is. Besides, from what you're telling me he might never get well. Isn't that right?'
'We can't throw him back in the river, like a caught fish we decided we didn't want,' Orson Bright said reasonably.
'I don't see why not!' Andy said. Tess did not know if her brother was joking or not. It was hard to tell with Andy. 'Did anybody go through his pockets?'
'We did,' Orson answered. 'There was nothing there to tell us who he is.'
'You two better think twice about anything you decide.' Mother Rose said. She had her face bent toward her bowl of stew. Strands of gray-streaked hair had slipped free of their pins, augmenting her crone-like appearance. Andy glared at the old woman. To his mind, foolish old people, like children, should be seen and not heard.
'What do you mean, Mother?' Orson inquired. He had dunked a slab of cornbread into his stew and now sat holding it halfway to his lips, the gravy dripping onto the rough plank table top.
'Just what I said,' Rose answered, still not looking up as she continued to spoon the stew from her bowl. 'You better think twice.' The old woman lifted her head now and dabbed at her lips with the corner of her apron.
Fixing her bright eyes on Orson, she said, 'You two didn't find anything on the man, in his pockets to identify who he was, did you? You should have looked closer.'
'What do you mean? Did he have some papers on him? Something like that?' Andy asked.
'Not exactly,' the old woman said. 'Tess – get me the wounded man's shirt!'
Teresa placed her napkin aside, rose and went to the room where the injured man lay. Orson and Andy watched Rose's face, seeing a small light of triumph in the old woman's eyes. Tess was back within a minute. She had spared a moment to touch the wounded young man's feverish forehead before snatching up his blood-stained red shirt and returning with it to the dining room. She handed the folded garment to her grandmother.
Rose unfolded the torn shirt as Orson rose to go closer to her. Andy, his coffee cup in hand, watched with glowering attention.
Rose found what she wanted and offered the shirt to Orson's inspection. Her gnarled finger tapped at two tiny objects on the upper left breast of the shirt. Orson's forehead furrowed slightly as he saw what she was indicating.
'What is it, Dad?' Andy demanded.
'You know what those are?' Rose asked, looking up to Orson.
'I do, yes,' he answered.
Andy could restrain himself no longer. The young man rose abruptly, his heavy chair scraping against the wooden floor. Throwing his napkin aside he rounded the table toward his father and grandmother.
'What is it?' Andy demanded again. With his habitual impatience he snatched the shirt away and examined it. 'I don't see anything,' he said, tossing the shirt back on the table.
With more forbearance than the young hothead deserved, Mother Rose turned the shirt over once more and pointed to the two small metal inserts in the fabric. 'Do you know what these are?' she asked. Andy only shrugged.
'Grommets,' Orson Bright told his son, fingering the small brass eyelets set two vertical inches apart.
'So?' Andy asked, growing flushed with anger as he often did when he failed to comprehend matters.
'No earthly use at all on the front of a man's shirt,' Orson told him. 'Except one – they would keep the fabric from being damaged ... if the man wore a badge.'CHAPTER 2
Dawn light awakened him and brought the return of pain. A dull thumping ache in his skull, a lancet of fiery pain in his shoulder. He tried to move that arm, but found it bound tightly and so he had to jackknife himself into a sitting position. With his hair hanging in his eyes he stared sullenly at the rectangle of light the rising sun cast against the wooden floor. There was a picture of an eagle in flight hung on the white-washed wall. The bed was of puncheon, roughly hewn, the quilt of patchwork design draping his lap and legs. Well and good.
But where was he?
That jarring question brought an even more puzzling enquiry to the surface of his foggy thoughts:
Who was he?
He had no idea if he was a tradesman, mule-skinner, farmer or thief. No name suggested itself – a man's most personal possession. His name, his mark of pride, and sometimes of shame ... was that it? Was he a criminal on the run?
The wound in his shoulder suggested a bullet wound, so that was a possibility. Maybe he had been on some ill-considered outlaw raid, been shot and managed to drag himself back to the gang's hideout. Or perhaps he was a hostage. Or a farmer who had suffered a hunting accident and was now recovering in the bosom of his caring family. Perhaps none of these.
His head ached as he considered the innumerable possibilities. He was unformed, a creature of mud waiting to be modeled into something human, something with a past, a future. He couldn't have been more depressed if he had awakened to find himself standing on a gallows.
The door swung open slowly. The girl entered hesitantly, a tray covered with a muslin cloth supported by one slender arm. Her smile was an uncomfortable one. She placed the tray down, parted the curtains on the window and spoke her few words without ever really looking into his eyes.
Excerpted from Dead Man's Guns by Paul Lederer. Copyright © 2010 Logan Winters. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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