Celia lies in bed when the man comes through her window. He whispers instructions, and she follows him into the night. Has she been kidnapped, or did she go of her own accord? To Celia’s father, there is no question that his daughter has been abducted, and he offers $800 to anyone who will kill the man who took her. His first choice is Dan Featherskill, a mysterious drifter with no patience for the law but a deep respect for human life. Dan has killed before but is no assassin, and the offer of a bounty makes him sick. But there are men in this town who see murder as an opportunity.
When the men sent out after Celia threaten the girl who Dan loves, he follows their trail into the foreboding Shadow Mountain. Trapped on the mountain by a deadly snowstorm, he will have to kill to survive.
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By Paul Lederer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2006 Owen G. Irons
All rights reserved.
The quiet dusk had faded to the blue of night. The Wyoming sky was moonless, the earth was damp and dark. The fitful breeze was filled with the sharp scent of mountain sage and the rich smell of mown alfalfa. The shadows of the oak trees surrounding the farmhouse were as black as coal. The man with the drawn Colt revolver waited, crouched and motionless. Starlight cast crooked shadows before him as he moved to the open window of the house. The gunman parted the curtains with the muzzle of his pistol, threw his leg over the sill and slipped into the room.
Celia Corbett came instantly alert at the small sounds the gunman made as he crossed the wooden floor to her bed and placed his hand over her mouth.
'Be silent and everything will be all right,' the man told her. She nodded her head slightly. Her startled eyes could not make out the intruder's face, but she knew who he was. She knew there was no point in arguing with him.
Celia swung her bare feet to the floor. She had fallen asleep before undressing for bed and she was fully clothed in range dress except for her boots. She tugged these on as the gunman watched the bedroom door, the thin ribbon of light bleeding into the room at its base, listening for any sound. The girl rose from her bed in silent surrender.
'There's two horses outside,' the shadowy man told Celia. 'You go first. I'll be right on your heels. Don't make a sound.' He gestured toward the window with the Colt.
Celia hesitated. 'Why are you doing this?' she asked, but the man was impatient.
'This is no time for questions.' He glanced again toward the door, believing he had heard a small noise beyond it. He said in raspy command, 'Now! Let's get going. Do you understand me?'
Celia could only nod, snatch up her hat from her nightstand, slip outside under his watchful eye and walk through the shadows toward the waiting horses. She knew better than to speak now, knew better than to do anything but obey as the man swung into the saddle of the other horse and motioned to her.
She heeled her horse and the animal started to walk away from the house, its hoofs silent against the damp, heavy grass, taking her away from the only home she had ever known as the grim rider beside her followed in silent escort.
The man issued his demand with cold bluntness. 'You find the kid that stole off with my daughter. If she's alive, you kill him and bring my Celia back. If she's dead, you kill him and leave him where he lies.'
'You're talking to the wrong man,' Dan Featherskill said softly.
The big man seated across the round saloon table scowled even more deeply. He was wild-eyed with anger and Dan's words did nothing to soothe him.
There was an untouched mug of beer near Featherskill's elbow. Now he picked it up, studied the man over the rim of the mug and took a sip. 'I'm not a bounty hunter, Mr Corbett.'
'It's not bounty huntin'!' the big man said roughly. 'It's retribution.'
'That's not my specialty either,' Featherskill shrugged. 'Sorry, Corbett, but this is not my line of work.'
'You don't understand!' the big flat-faced man said so loudly that men lined up along the bar turned their heads. Amos Corbett leaned forward, thumped a thick finger on the scarred surface of the barroom table and said in a lowered tone, 'Celia is all I have. She has to be found!'
Dan Featherskill studied the bulky man's eyes carefully. It was difficult to tell if Corbett was more liable to erupt in anger or burst out in tormented tears. His leathery face, sun-lined and sagging with the weight of the years and with sorrow remained set with insistence.
'You have to find her, Featherskill. You don't understand ... look,' he said fumbling in his jacket pocket, 'I have a picture of Celia with me. I brought it so you'd know her when you found her. Look at her face! That sweet, sweet face.'
Featherskill looked at the daguerreotype Corbett placed in front of him without interest. He saw the image of a slender, fair-haired girl, not pretty but nice-looking in an amiable way, seated in a high-backed, ornate chair. She was wearing a fancy white dress with ruffs at the cuffs and neckline. In one hand she held a rolled document – some sort of school diploma, Featherskill guessed.
'How could you not feel for me?' Corbett asked, his hound-dog eyes studying Dan's. 'To lose my daughter!' He slid the picture back across the table and slipped it into his jacket pocket.
'I do feel for you,' Featherskill replied, taking another sip of his beer, 'but I'm not the man for the job.'
'You're the only one,' Corbett said, clenching his meaty fists tightly. 'Look, Featherskill, you know the law won't help. The town marshal won't go beyond the city limits, the sheriff won't step over the county line without a wanted poster in his pocket.'
'You're a big rancher,' Featherskill pointed out.
'And it's round-up time! You know what that entails, Featherskill. I've got three men left on the home ranch.' He ran stubby fingers through his thick dark hair. 'One of them's thirteen years old, one's got a wooden leg! I can't raise a posse on my own. If I could, there's none of them know those mountains. You do!'
Featherskill was silent. Corbett was not listening to his replies. Dan felt for the man, understood his concern for his abducted daughter, but Corbett's anger led him to insist on one stipulation Dan could not agree to – he would not track down a man for the purposes of killing him. Whoever the man was he deserved a fair hearing.
'It's Shadow Mountain he's headed for,' Corbett said. 'They tell me you know that area like no other man besides the Cheyenne Indians.' Featherskill only nodded noncommittally, and an infuriated Amos Corbett continued. After taking a deep breath to calm himself, he added, 'There's no white man I've heard of who knows that area well at all.'
'You're right, I do happen to know the area,' Featherskill admitted. He tried to explain once again. 'I'm willing to try to find your daughter, Corbett, try to bring her home to you—'
'Then we're in agreement!' Corbett said, leaning back in his wooden chair with relief.
'Please let me finish! I will not shoot down a man out of hand.'
'Then hog-tie him and bring him back to me so that I can do it.'
'No.' Featherskill shook his head definitely. 'I will not. If he forces it, I'll kill him if I have to, but I won't do murder for you,' he said. Corbett's dark face grew darker with suffused blood. Featherskill had to put one more point forward. 'Do we know that Kyle Handy kidnapped your daughter? In the night without her making a sound? From her own bedroom?'
Corbett's eyes grew intent with anger. 'What are you saying, Featherskill?'
Dan's shoulder lifted in the merest of shrugs. 'Youngsters have been known to run off together before this.'
'That would never happen! Could not. You do not know Celia!'
'No,' Featherskill said to the offended rancher, 'I don't, and that's just it, Corbett. I'd have to know her. I'd need to talk to her. If I were to find out that she wanted to be with Handy—'
'She's only a child! It could never happen the way you suggest,' Corbett said, in a challenging tone.
Dan Featherskill met the man's hostile gaze evenly; he lifted his beer and finished it. Pushing the mug aside, he rose.
'You have to understand, Corbett. However certain you may be, I am not. With no disrespect to you or your daughter, I just can't know what happened with certainty.' Dan picked up his hat from a nearby chair and planted it on his head. 'I can't be hired to do murder, Mr Corbett.' Not even for $800, which was what Corbett had offered him.
Corbett opened his mouth but said nothing. He knew he had failed, and his heavy lips moved only in silent curses as he watched the lanky man with the low-riding Colt pistol on his hip stride from the room, pushing through the saloon's batwing doors to emerge into the bright, cold sunlight of the Wyoming morning.
Dan stood before the saloon for a minute, twisting the points of his small mustache tighter. The lines around his eyes deepened as he smiled to himself. Well, that was that. One more job he might have had, lost. He had better find a way to make some money soon. He wasn't going to spend a Wyoming winter on the range, and his hotel bill had reached the margin of his resources. Highslip had offered him a job as deputy marshal, but the idea of breaking up fights, tossing drunks out of saloons or serving eviction papers on impoverished squatters as a way of life rubbed against Featherskill's lifelong tendencies.
He had determined early on in life that he would live free. He worked when he pleased and chose jobs that seemed either important or pleasant to him. Corbett's vicious little offer did not suit at all. Nor did Marshal Highslip's. Wearing a badge was much like wearing an anchor. Dan Featherskill had worn one for a time. Dan respected the law, but he could not accept the rigidity of it. He was inclined to make his own determinations where guilt and innocence were involved, and the law viewed such laxness with deep disapproval.
The wind was cold and gusting. The muddy, rutted street was dotted with iron-gray pools of water. Featherskill crossed the road, lifting his eyes to where the thrusting peaks of the Antelope Hill Range stood, shrugged off by the Rockies. He could not see Shadow Mountain itself, but in his mind the image of its craggy reaches was clear.
He entered the stable where his black horse stood looking at him curiously over a stall's partition. It pawed the ground underfoot impatiently. It seemed the animal had rested enough and needed some freedom of its own.
'Taking your horse out today?' Charlie Wheatley asked. Featherskill turned to see the scrawny stable hand, leaning on a pitchfork, standing in the shadows of the barn.
'He needs to stretch his legs.'
'Be more than a stretch, wouldn't it?' Wheatley asked, his small eyes narrow with cunning.
'Doubt it. I don't feel like riding for long. It's downright chilly out,' Featherskill said. He picked up a wisp of hay and hand-fed the black, rubbing its strong glossy neck. Wheatley was an idiot, he reflected, but he kept his horses well.
'You mean you're not going toward the mountains?' Wheatley asked. He removed his hat to scratch his thin patch of red hair. At Featherskill's frown, Wheatley shrugged and said, 'I sure would – for eight hundred dollars. That is, if anyone was to ask.' He smiled crookedly. 'Which they won't.'
'Everybody knows everything around here, it seems,' Featherskill said, turning back to face Wheatley.
'Just about. I mean everybody knows Corbett is looking for a tracker. He's been bellowing around town for two days now.'
'Everyone even knows that he's offering eight hundred dollars for the job?'
'I heard it,' Wheatley said, without amplifying his remark. Featherskill busied himself saddling the black, smoothing the striped Indian blanket over its glossy back. Sunlight fell in bars through the chinks in the slat siding. The stable smell was full but not overpowering. Across the stable a palomino lifted its head and looked intently toward the double front doors. Dan glanced that way as well.
Two men wearing range clothes, carrying Winchester rifles, strode deliberately into the stable leading two weary-looking horses. Wheatley, wiping his hands on a rag, went to greet them.
'Good morning, gentlemen,' Wheatley said. The taller, narrower of the men, a blond rider, declined to answer. The shorter, swarthy man with him muttered a greeting. 'What can I do for you?' Wheatley asked, and there was a tension, as of nervousness, in his high-pitched voice now.
'Rub 'em down and grain 'em,' the dark man said. He removed his gray hat, wiped back his sparse dark hair and let his eyes shift to study the stable's interior. Seeing Featherskill he touched his companion's sleeve and nodded.
Alone, the dark man strode to where Featherskill had slipped the bit into the black's mouth and was now tightening the twin cinches of his Texas-rigged saddle.
'Is your name Featherskill?' the dark-eyed man asked. His shirt was open at the collar, showing a mass of dark curly hair, and his hand rested on the butt of his revolver nestled in its silver-pinned holster. Dan halted what he was doing and let his eyes lock with the stranger's.
'That's right,' Dan said without inflection. The stranger's eyes narrowed and he studied Dan from head to foot.
'You're out of this, understand? You won't need your horse.'
'I don't believe I know what you're talking about,' Dan told him, kneeing the black to force the air from it as he tightened a cinch strap. 'I need my horse when I want it.'
'You won't be riding into the mountains,' the stranger said, taking half a step forward. Beyond him, in the sunlight falling through the double doors, Dan could see the second rider shifting his Winchester as Wheatley eased away uncertainly.
'My pony needs some exercise,' Dan said, 'that's all I'm doing. Now, if you'll get out of the way?'
Stubbornly the dark-eyed man held his ground until Dan began leading the black out of the stall. Its frisky spirits caused its legs to lift vigorously and the rider had no choice but to back away.
Dan walked to the doorway, his hat tugged low, leading the black. The blond man watched him, glancing once toward the other stranger as if for a signal. Yet he made no move and Featherskill emerged into the cold light of day and swung aboard the black without incident. He walked it toward the edge of town, the black taking a notion to prance sideways. Looking back, Dan saw the two strangers standing in the doorway, watching him.
No matter. He didn't know who they were, or want to know. You crossed the paths of men like that every day in rough country. They could be drunk, mistaken, showing off or just plain stupid.
Oddly, Dan didn't believe those two were any of those.
The black was in fine fettle on this brisk morning, and it trotted forward eagerly, straining at the reins. Dan let it run then, streaking across the long gramma grass-covered flats. Here and there violet lupins grew in clusters and fading patches of black-eyed Susan. It was late in the year and they would soon be no more, but they still prospered on this morning. Dan slowed the black and allowed it to splash over a narrow rill. The stream, a wandering vein of Willow Creek, was too small to be named, too shallow to be a hazard, too erratic to be utilized. No Name Creek was just an afterthought of some mountain storm.
They had now ridden a mile from town and Dan held the heavily breathing horse to a walk as they wound through a grove of live oak trees, passing through to the irritation of a rising flock of raucous crows. Pausing in the cool, heavy shade Dan looked westward. Now he could see Shadow Mountain, its peak wreathed in drifting clouds, fragile, sheer and twisted. He studied the timbered slopes and rugged crags for a long minute, remembering. Then, a little roughly, he turned the big black horse's head homeward.
Dan had returned to the stable after an hour and was rubbing the black horse down. The animal nibbled at the hay in its bin, muscles still quivering beneath its obsidian hide. Wheatley had wandered over to the stall. He watched Dan silently as he curried the black.
'Who were those two men?' Dan asked, without turning to face the stableman.
'The ones you were talking to?'
'That's right.' Dan paused, and turned his eyes toward Wheatley, noticing the apparent strain on the man's face. The stable man glanced toward the double doors before he answered.
'The dark one, the one doing the talking, was Brad Feeley. The other's Dallas French, the Trinidad gunman. I suppose you've heard of them?' Wheatley enquired hesitantly.
'I've heard them mentioned,' Featherskill said, replacing the currycomb on its hook. 'What makes my business any of theirs?'
'Amos Corbett,' Wheatley said.
'Oh, I see. The reward.'
'That's right, Dan. I heard them talking after you left. They were here to talk to Corbett. They know about the eight-hundred dollar reward. They heard that you were after it too.'
'I see.' Dan shrugged and put his hat on. 'Well, they've talked to Corbett by now. They know that it isn't true. I've no interest in the job.'
Relaxing, Wheatley said, 'I'm glad to hear it, Dan.'
'Why? What difference could it make to you, Charlie?'
Excerpted from Gunsmoke Mountain by Paul Lederer. Copyright © 2006 Owen G. Irons. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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