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Lawman Without a Gun
By Clive Dawson
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2006 Clive Dawson
All rights reserved.
It was the hour after high noon and the heat head had reached its maximum. The sun was a blazing white disc in a cloudless sky, beating down upon the narrow trail which angled around the base of the hills.
It was the bad time of the day for a man to ride but it held little significance for Frank Kelsey. Somehow, the arid country and the tall hills, their sloping sides almost bare of vegetation, had little effect on him. All of his thoughts were concentrated on the events of the past few days.
For five years he had been Marshal of Dodge City, his reputation as a man fast with a gun keeping an uneasy peace in that frontier town. There had been very little real trouble there until the Dexter gang had ridden in; three of them, intent on robbing the bank. They had laid their plans well and it was possible they might have succeeded had not he, and his two deputies, received prior warning that they were on their way.
The resulting gunfight had been short, but sharp and deadly. No sooner had the three men emerged from the bank, ready to make a run for their mounts, than he had called on them to drop their weapons. Perhaps he should have known that killers like the Dexters never surrendered. Whirling, they had opened fire on him and the two men with him where they were under cover along the opposite boardwalk.
Jed Dexter had gone down in the middle of the street with a bullet in his chest, the bank notes he had been carrying scattering in the dust. His two brothers had dived for cover behind the horse trough on the far side.
Frank remembered the few minutes that had followed as if they were a fire raging inside his brain. He recalled the slugs from the two killers that had smashed into the woodwork just behind him; saw one of his deputies fall back with a bullet in his shoulder. Then Cal and Verge Dexter had suddenly decided to make a run for it. It had been an act of desperation on their part.
Everything that followed had happened so quickly; it was over almost before it had begun. Thrusting himself forward onto his knees, balancing himself with one hand on the wooden post, he had fired instinctively, almost without taking conscious aim. Then, seemingly from nowhere, the small girl had darted across the road, swerving around the waiting mounts.
When he was finally able to think coherently again, both Dexter brothers lay dead in the dust of the street. Beside them lay the body of the girl. There had been blood on the front of her yellow dress and he had known, with a sickening certainty, that she was almost certainly dead.
For a long time after that, everything had been just a blur. He had carried the child into Doc Hanson's surgery with the hysterical mother screaming and yelling abuse and accusations at him. There had been nothing Hanson could do for the girl. Apparently, she had died instantly, not knowing what had hit her.
His deputy had been brought in and while Hanson had worked on him, he had returned to his office, seeing the accusing looks on the faces of several of the townsfolk. Mayor Tollerton had come in a few moments later and tried to assure him that none of what had happened had been his fault.
Frank had listened dully to what the mayor was saying, but the words seemed to go over his head, none of them registering on his numbed mind. Before Tollerton could protest further, he had taken off his star and laid it on the desk. Unshucking his gunbelt, he had placed it beside the badge. Most of his life he had lived by the gun and now that weapon had killed an innocent child.
The voice of reason argued that what had happened had been nothing more than a tragic accident, that there had been nothing else he could have done. But the voice of guilt argued that he should never carry a weapon again, that the job of upholding the law in this lawless land should never again be his.
Now he was here, riding this dusty trail west, a bitter man whose conscience would give him no rest. Wiping the sweat from his eyes, he peered into the heat-shimmering distance. For three days he had wrestled with the thoughts pounding through his mind, struggling to decide what to do.
He had no idea where he was going. All he knew was that he had to get as far away from Dodge City as possible. He could ride these trails clear across the country, continuing west, until he reached the California border. There, perhaps, he might find peace of a sort and try to forget what had happened.
As a lawman he had killed several men in his time; men who had tried to buck the law; hired killers and outlaw bands, who tried to impose their own brand of violence upon these frontier towns. Then, it had been either his life or theirs.
But a little child barely eight years old. That was something he wasn't sure he could live with. It would take a long time to remove that stain on his reputation.
Ahead of him, the glaring sunlight picked out the group of wheeling black dots in the sky. He recognized them instantly. Buzzards! Something lay up ahead which had attracted the attention of those creatures. Almost without thinking, he touched spurs to the stallion's flanks, urging it forward at a faster pace.
The trail dipped downward, ran along the bed of a dried-up creek, and then around the out-thrusting shoulder of a hill. In every other direction there was only the white alkali that stretched clear to the western horizon.
As he rode along the creek he noticed the deep ruts in the hard-baked ground where wagon wheels had passed over it. Some of the marks looked recent and that observation stirred vague apprehensions in his mind.
At the far end of the creek, he climbed the low bank and rounded the side of the hill. Not more than fifty yards away, he saw the reason for the buzzards, now circling lower in the sky. The stage lay on its side, both of the nearside wheels splintered and lying off their axles.
Riding up swiftly, he dismounted and moved forward cautiously, first scanning the area in every direction. Nothing moved and he guessed that whoever had been behind this hold-up had gone, taking with them any gold and personal valuables from the passengers.
There was no sign of the horses. One of the shafts had ploughed deep into the ground. The other pointed into the air. Across them, arms and legs dangling limply, lay the body of the driver. One glance was sufficient to tell Frank that he was dead. There were at least five slugs in his body.
With an effort, he pulled himself up onto the side of the stage, grasped the door handle and pulled with all of his strength. It opened with a squeal of twisted hinges. Three men lay in a sprawled heap against the far door.
The nearest was a man in his late fifties with a trim beard and moustache. His eyes were open and from the vacant stare in them, Frank knew he was dead. There was a rip in his fancy waistcoat. Doubtless there had been a gold watch and chain there which had evidently been torn away.
The second passenger was a much younger man and there was a pistol in his right hand. Evidently he had died trying to defend himself against the attackers. The third was almost buried beneath the other two. He too had a Colt in his hand and, as Frank moved his arm, he uttered a low groan and tried to push himself from beneath the two bodies.
With an effort, Frank managed to roll the dead men off him. Gasping air into his lungs, the man tried to bring up the gun, levelling it on Frank.
'Easy there, friend,' Frank said quietly. 'Whoever did this is long gone. I just happened on it. Do you reckon you can stand?'
Relaxing visibly, the man caught hold of the tilted seat with one hand as Frank hooked his arm beneath his left shoulder. Grimacing with pain, he muttered thickly, 'I've got a bullet in my right leg. I don't reckon I can stand on it. I —'
He broke off suddenly and stared about him. 'My daughter? She was here with me. Is she with you?'
Frank shook his head slowly. 'There were only the three of you in here when I rode up – and the driver outside. He's dead too, I'm afraid. There's no sign of anyone else.'
'Then those killers must have taken her.' There was a note of growing frenzy and desperation in the man's voice. Clawing with his arms, he grasped the sides of the door and attempted to pull himself out.
Sliding off the side of the stage, Frank planted his feet firmly in the alkali, grabbed the other's arms and pulled him through the opening. Lowering him to the ground, Frank straightened. 'What's your name, friend?' he asked evenly.
'Jim Everley. But my daughter – you're sure she wasn't in the stage?'
'I'm sorry, Mr Everley. There were only the three of you inside. Let me take a look at that leg.'
While he lay back, Frank took out his knife and slit the fabric, exposing the wound. The slug had gone in a couple of inches above the ankle. Luckily, it had glanced off the bone, leaving an ugly gash torn through the flesh It was clear the man had lost a lot of blood and the sooner he was able to get him to a doctor, the better.
Going back to his mount, he returned with his canteen. Taking out his kerchief, he washed most of the blood away and then bound it up tightly. 'That's the best I can do until I can get you to a doctor,' he said tautly, offering the canteen.
Tilting it to his lips, Everley took a long swallow, then handed the canteen back. Letting his breath go in a long sigh, he grasped Frank's arm. 'Why in God's name would those killers take Anne?'
Frank shrugged. 'They might try to hold her to ransom if you've got plenty o' money. Or for some reason they've got a grudge against you. You got any idea who did this?'
Everley shook his head, grimacing as pain jarred through his leg. 'I never saw any of 'em in my life. There were four of 'em. Just came ridin' from the hills back there.'
'You mean you saw their faces?'
'I saw them all right. I'd recognize 'em all if I ever saw 'em again. And if they've got Anne, I'll....'
His voice trailed away into silence, leaving the threat hanging in the air.
Getting to his feet, Frank stared intently into the distance. There was nothing but white alkali blazing beneath the scorching heat of the sun. It was not going to be easy taking Everley to the nearest town and —
He jerked his head round swiftly as a sudden sound reached him from somewhere close by. Everley had heard it too. Sucking in a deep breath, he tried to pull himself upright.
'Just lie there,' Frank said harshly. 'I'll check this out.'
Moving cautiously around the overturned stage, he threw a swift glance all around him. Some three feet from the edge of the trail, the ground fell away in a steep slope covered with dense mesquite. Going forward warily, he looked down and immediately picked out the prone figure lying at the bottom of the slope.
Digging his spurs deeply into the treacherous, shifting alkali, he slid down in a miniature avalanche of small rocks and dust, and reached the girl a few seconds later. She had pushed herself up into a sitting position. There was a nasty bruise on the side of her head, just above her right eye, but apart from that she seemed unhurt.
'Do you think you can stand?' he asked concernedly.
Placing his arm around her waist, he lifted her to her feet. For a moment, she swayed, then pressed her lips tightly together and straightened. There was a frightened expression in her eyes and he guessed she was still unsure of him.
For a moment, she stood quite still and then gave a slight nod. There was a look of mute enquiry on her face, but it was a few moments before she put what was in her mind into words.
'My father was on the stage. He's dead, isn't he? I was somehow thrown clear and fell down this slope but I heard the gunfire.'
'If your father is Jim Everley, he's still alive,' Frank told her. 'Although he's got a bullet wound in the leg which I've managed to bandage up.'
For several seconds, the girl stared at him, scarcely able to believe what he had just said.
'He's alive? But I thought those men had killed them all.'
'Guess you were both lucky. From what your father's just told me, none o' those critters covered their faces. That can only mean they meant to kill everyone on that stage.'
Taking her hand, he helped her up the unstable slope, finally helping her over the edge. Everley was where he had left him. Going down onto her knees, Anne hugged him, then rose unsteadily to her feet, looking round at Frank. 'What are we going to do now, Mister ...?'
'Kelsey, Frank Kelsey,' he said. 'Somehow, we have to get your father to a doctor. He's lost quite a lot o' blood and that wound could become infected if any o' this alkali gets into it.'
'But there are no horses.' The look of desperation on her features deepened.
Pursing his lips, Frank asked, 'Guess you know more o' this territory than I do. How far is it to the nearest town?'
'It's the best part o' ten miles to Condor,' her father put in. 'Somehow, I don't reckon we're goin' to make it across that territory out there.'
'We'll make it.' Frank spoke grimly, forcing more conviction into his voice than he felt.
'With only one horse and my father unable to walk?' Anne shook her head. 'It's impossible.'
'She's right.' Her father grimaced as he straightened his injured leg. 'Ten miles across that alkali with no shade from this blisterin' sun.'
'We wait here until nightfall,' Frank replied. 'This is the only shade there is. Once the sun sets it'll get a whole lot cooler. You'll both have to ride my stallion. I'll walk.'
'Now I know you're plain loco,' Everley muttered. 'And what if those hellions should come back, just to make sure none of us are still alive?'
'That ain't likely. They've got what they wanted. Besides, they know they spooked the horses. Even if they did only wound one o' the passengers, a man with a bullet in him would stand no chance at all in that wilderness.'
He motioned to the girl. 'You'd better sit down, miss. Stay as much in the shade o' the stage as you can. We've several hours o' daylight left before we can leave.'
Anne Everley did as she was told, sinking down beside her father.
Building himself a smoke, Frank lit it and drew the smoke deep into his lungs. Around them, the oppressive silence was broken only by the movements of his stallion a few yards away and the thin keening of the wind that occasionally lifted small clouds of white dust, sending them swirling around the wreckage of the coach.
Finally, he asked, 'You know this town, Everley?'
Everley nodded. 'Lived there for the past fifteen years since comin' West. I've got a small spread a couple o' miles outside o' Condor – just a couple o' hundred head and some hired hands who work it for me.'
'I've been out East for three years,' Anne said. 'We were on our way back when those gunmen came.' There was still a haunted look in her eyes at the memory. She paused as a fresh thought struck her. 'Are you sure those other two men are dead?'
'They're dead all right,' Frank told her.
Everley's gaze roved over Frank, appraising him closely. 'Just what do you do, Kelsey? Somehow, you've got the look of a gunman to me but I see you ain't carryin' any guns and from that empty scabbard on your mount, you've got no rifle either. Ridin' this territory without any weapons, you're either a fool, or you've got some good reason for not carryin' any weapons.'
Choosing his words carefully, Frank said, 'I've got a good enough reason. I had a job back in Dodge but somethin' happened there that made it impossible for me to stay.'
Everley made to say something more, but his daughter flashed him a warning look and he said nothing.
The afternoon wore on with an agonizing slowness. All around them the landscape shimmered until it hurt their eyes to look at it. Over their heads, the waiting buzzards still circled in lazy, swooping spirals. While the three of them remained there, however, the birds would venture no closer. Like all of the predators in this arid wasteland they possessed infinite patience.
Anne dozed fitfully, occasionally stirring in her sleep. At times, Frank checked the rough bandage on Everley's leg. The bleeding seemed to have stopped but it was possible that slug had cracked, or broken, the bone.
Slowly, the punishing heat diminished. They drank sparingly from the water in the canteens but their dry mouths absorbed much of it before it went down. Frank woke the girl just as the sun was setting. For a moment, she seemed unaware of where she was. Then she pushed herself up on her arms, shaking her head a little.
'Guess it's time to be moving,' Frank said. 'We've a long way to go and it won't be easy, I'm afraid.'
'I understand. Just so long as we can get my father to a doctor.'
Excerpted from Lawman Without a Gun by Clive Dawson. Copyright © 2006 Clive Dawson. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER I: BUZZARD TRAIL,
CHAPTER II: AMBUSH,
CHAPTER III: DEATH IN THE NIGHT,
CHAPTER IV: GUN TRIAL,
CHAPTER V: SWIFT JUSTICE,
CHAPTER VI: KELSEY STRIKES BACK,
CHAPTER VII: ROGUES IN CAHOOTS,
CHAPTER VIII: INTRIGUE,
CHAPTER IX: NIGHT ATTACK,
CHAPTER X: SWIFT RETRIBUTION,