Arizona Territory Ranger Sam Burrack rides the border badlands to Iron Point hoping to capture Ozzie Cord, a mercenary who killed a sheriff back in Mesa Grande. Cord escaped jail once, but won’t get away this time...
But as Sam nears his prey, the trail of scalped bodies makes it clear that someone else has a vendetta. By all appearances, Turner “Big Foot” Pridemore, leader of the scalpers, has gained major footing in Iron Point. He’s driven away the desert Apaches and ousted the law. But he’s missing one thing: his son, Fox...
Not satisfied living in his father’s shadow, Fox has allied himself with Ozzie Cord and is staging his own bloody rampage. Now, Sam must walk a fine line between the law and the lawless to make sure he gets his man—and cuts Big Foot and his son down to size.
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For Mary Lynn, of course . . .
Arizona Territory Ranger Sam Burrack rode his copper-colored black-point dun past a broken hitch rail, over toward a short, wind-whipped campfire fifty feet away. He led a chestnut desert barb beside him. Over the barb’s back lay the blanket-wrapped body of the half-breed named Mickey Cousins, who had died in Mesa Grande in a shoot-out with the Ranger and two town deputies at the Old Senate Saloon. Cousins had been a shotgun rider on a desert stage route before falling in with a band of scalp hunters who were under contract with the Mexican government to kill the desert Apache when and wherever they found them.
The leader of the scalpers, Erskine Cord, and his nephew, Ozzie Cord, had been paid to lie in wait and gun down the sheriff of Mesa Grande. While the Ranger was convinced that Erskine had done the actual shooting, Ozzie had been with him, side by side. Erskine, whom Sam had left lying dead on the floor of the Old Senate in the same gun battle that had taken Mickey Cousins’ life, had been waging a private war with a particular band of Mescalero Apache known as the Wolf Hearts, led by the seasoned desert chief, Quetos. A bad enough hombre in his own right, Sam reminded himself.
He had been on the scalpers’ trail now for, what . . . a week?he asked himself. Yes, he believed it had been a week now since he’d loaded Cousins’ body and struck back out on the trail. Time passed quickly, while you were chasing down scalp hunters and assassins while a band of Mescalero warriors was busy killing any white man foolhardy enough to be out here along the border badlands.
What does that say about you? he asked himself wryly.
He looked all around the abandoned trading post when he’d stopped and stepped down from his saddle. The wooden part of the structure had burned unobstructed for days. All that remained standing were two of the original stone walls that had been here since the days of Spanish rule. The charred remnants, strewn utensils and bits of leather shoes and clothing were signs of yet another generation who’d come and gone through the portal of time. Recent bullet holes dotted the stone walls; arrows stood slantwise in the sandy ground.
Twenty feet in front of him past the blackened adobe walls, a man with dark bloodstained bandaging wrapped around his chest sat in the dirt, staring at him. Sam saw the shotgun lying across the wounded man’s lap. Two Mexican women busied themselves preparing an evening meal over a wind-driven fire.
“Hello the camp,” the Ranger called out, stopping at a respectable distance.
The wounded man continued staring at him as he spoke sidelong to the two women.
“Keep . . . cooking,” he murmured under his waning breath. A few yards behind the man, a two-wheel mule cart sat with one side propped up on a stack of rocks. A removed wheel leaned against its side. A mule stood tied to a stake by a lead rope, crunching on a small mound of cracked grain.
The Ranger started to step forward and say something more. But he stopped himself as the shotgun came up quickly in the wounded man’s hands and pointed at him.
“Easy there, mister,” Sam said in a calm but firm tone. “I mean you no harm.” He reached a hand up slowly and drew back the lapel of his riding duster. Late-afternoon sunlight glinted on his badge. “I’m Arizona Territory Ranger Sam Burrack.”
“What’s that mean to me?” the man asked bluntly. His voice sounded weakened and halting. He looked around and off toward the distant hill line. “Is this Arizona . . . ?”
Sam didn’t answer right away. He looked at the women, noting for the first time that one was not much more than a child. They only glanced at the Ranger and continued their work.
Finally, “It is, just barely,” the Ranger said. He lowered his gloved hand from his lapel and ventured another step forward.
The man eased the shotgun back onto his lap and stared.
“Besides,” Sam said, “it wouldn’t matter if it’s not. I’m in pursuit of a killer. We have an agreement with the Mexican government—”
“Ha! The Mexican government,” the man said, cutting him off with a sharp tone. “Where was the Mexican government when I was being kilt by Injuns?” He eyed Sam bitterly. “Where were you, for that matter?”
“I expect I was somewhere between here and Mesa Grande,” Sam said, keeping his voice civil. He walked closer, leading the two horses until he stopped and looked down at the man. “How bad are you hurt?”
“I’ve been stabbed deep,” the man said. “I fit back a whole band of wild heathens—had ’em leaving too. Dang Injun boy no bigger than a pissant ran out of nowhere, stabbed me twice with a spear bigger than he was.” He shook his head in reflection. “And that’s how I, Vernon Troxel, died . . . out here, the middle of nowhere, stuck to death . . . by a stinking little nit.”
“Take it easy, Vernon Troxel,” Sam said, hearing the man’s breath and voice getting weaker, shallower as he spoke. He reached out toward the edge of the bandaging, to take a closer look at the wounds. “Maybe you’re in better shape than you think.”
But the man jerked back away from him.
“Keep your hands to yourself, Ranger,” he said. “Only one’s going to touch me . . . is my esposas.” He wagged his head toward the two women.
Sam looked around at the women, the young one in particular.
“Your wives,” he said, still looking at the younger of the two women as they straightened and looked over at Troxel.
“That’s right. . . . What of it?” Troxel said, his voice growing a little stronger.
Sam didn’t reply; he sat watching Troxel, listening, getting an idea what kind of man was sitting before him.
Troxel coughed up a glob of black blood and spat it away and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. The young woman, seeing him motion for her with a weak bloody hand, hurried over with an uncapped canteen.
Troxel swiped the canteen from the young girl’s hand with a malicious stare. The girl flinched and shied back in a way that told the Ranger she had more than once tasted the back of this man’s hand.
“I bought them both down in Guatemala, outside Cobán. They’re mother and daughter.” He gave a weak, sly grin. “Made them both my esposas, legal-like,” he said. “Legal as you can get . . . in Guatemala anyway.”
A slaver . . .
Sam only stared flatly, but Troxel had seen that same stare in many places across both the American and Mexican frontier.
“You see anything wrong in that, Ranger?” he said, blood bubbling deep in his chest.
“I enforce the law to the best of my calling,” Sam said. “I don’t judge the laws of another nation.” He took the canteen from the man’s faltering hand to keep him from spilling it.
“That’s . . . no answer,” Troxel said, coughing from deep in his chest.
“It’s all the answer you’ll get from me,” Sam said. He didn’t like slavers, legal or otherwise. He looked up and all around the pillaged and charred trading post as he capped the canteen. He handed it away to the young girl, who took it hesitantly and then hurried back out of reach. “I’m tracking some mercenaries, white men who rode through here on shod horses,” he said, nudging his head toward the wide sets of tracks across the trading post yard. “Looks like the Apache were tracking them too. Were you here?”
“No,” Troxel said, “but damn their eyes . . . for getting these Injuns stirred up.” He gave a bloody, rattling cough. “I got caught here smack . . . between the two. Damn my luck.”
Sam saw his point. The scalp hunters were going to leave bitter feelings between the whites and the desert Apache for a long time to come.
“Can I wheel your cart for you before I leave?” Sam asked.
“I won’t be needing a cart come morning,” Troxel said with finality.
“You might,” Sam said. “Either way, the womenfolk will.”
“Yeah . . . they will,” Troxel said as if in afterthought. His eyes took on a crafty look. “I’d make you a good price . . . for the two of them.”
Sam just stared at him for a moment.
“Don’t look at . . . me that way,” the man said, struggling with his words. “What good will they do me . . . when I’m dead?”
“As much good as the money I’d be giving you for them,” Sam replied.
Troxel closed his eyes and sighed.
“Obliged if you’d . . . wheel my cart,” he said. “Obliged if you’d spend the night too. Keep these desert critters . . . from chewing on me before I’m gone.”
“I’ll fix the cart, and then I’ve got to go,” Sam said. “The womenfolk will see to you. It’s only another day’s ride to Iron Point.”
“Punta de hierro. . . .” The wounded man translated the name Iron Point into Spanish, then spat as if to rid his mouth of bad taste. “What might I find . . . in Iron Point?”
Sam didn’t answer. He started to stand.
“Your womenfolk will see you through the night,” he said.
In spite of Troxel’s waning strength, he grasped the Ranger’s forearm.
“No, wait!” he said. “My womenfolk will take pleasure . . . watching critters drag away my bones.” He sounded desperate. “Stay the night. Bed down with either of them—bed them both . . . I don’t mind. They need a good going-over. But don’t leave tonight!”
The Ranger pulled his forearm free.
“Don’t say such a thing,” Sam said quietly, seeing both the mother and her daughter look over at him from the fire. “I’m on a manhunt.”
“Shoot me, then . . . before you leave,” the man pleaded. “Shoot them and me. It’s best all around.” He broke down sobbing. Sam saw the man’s mind had taken all it could and was ready to snap. What would he do to the women when that happened, before he turned the double barrels up under his chin and squeezed the trigger?
Sam reached down and picked up the shotgun while he had the chance. The man stopped sobbing long enough to make a futile grab for it.
“Take it easy,” Sam said, moving the shotgun out of reach. “I’ll wheel your cart. We’ll load you on it and ride on to Iron Point tonight.”
“Tonight . . . ?” The man sniffled and wiped a ragged sleeve under his nose. “I— I can’t go tonight. I’ll never make it to Iron Point.”
Sam let out a patient breath and propped the shotgun over his shoulder. He looked over at the slaver’s mother-and-daughter dual wives and felt something ugly turn in his stomach. The two stared at him; the mother tried to smile, putting herself out in front of whatever bargain Troxel might have struck for them.
“I’ll fix the cart,” he said to Troxel.
Turning away from the woman’s feigned smile and dark hopeless eyes, he led the two horses to where the mule stood crunching its meager handful of grain. The animal looked up and brayed and pulled back its ears, grain clinging to its lips. As Sam walked the horses closer, the mule plunged its bony head down and ate hurriedly.
* * *
When the last of the sun’s light had sunk below the curve of the earth, the cart and the mule hitched to it stood in black silhouette against the purple sky. With the spare wheel in place and the broken wheel cast aside into the rocky sand, the Ranger and the mother and daughter gathered the remaining cooking utensils and piled them into the cart alongside the wounded, half-conscious slaver. The Ranger noted how the woman tried to keep herself between him and the young girl.
“I speak inglés,” the woman said quietly. “But my very young daughter does not. So you will speak to me, sí, por favor?” she asked hesitantly.
“I understand,” Sam said. “Tell your very young daughter to take the seat.” There was something about these two he wasn’t buying. He gestured up at the front of the two-wheel cart where a rough board lay crosswise front to side as a makeshift driver’s seat.
“Sí . . . ?” the woman said, looking at him in cautious surprise.
“Sí,” the Ranger replied. “She can ride up there. You can ride this one.” He nodded at the barb. The woman only stared as he pulled the blanket-wrapped body of Mickey Cousins from across the chestnut barb’s back and carried it to the rear of the wagon and secured it down on a narrow board with dangling lengths of tie-down rope.
“My name is Ria Cerero,” the woman ventured in a hushed tone of voice. “My young daughter’s name is Ana.”
“Arizona Territory Ranger Sam Burrack, ma’am,” Sam said, touching the dusty brim of his pearl-gray sombrero. “If the two of you are ready, we need to mount up and move on out of here.” He nodded toward two shadowy wolves who had circled in closer over the past hour, drawn in by the scent of fresh blood. “Get your husband somewhere off the desert floor.”
“Sí, I understand,” Ria said. “But he is not my husband, this one,” she added in an ever-more hushed voice. “He purchased me and my daughter from my dead husband’s brother.”
Sam listened as he ushered her up into the barb’s saddle.
“My husband’s brother, Felipe, took Ana and me in when my husband died from the fever. But Felipe could not take care of us and his wife and children as well. So he sold us to King Troxel.”
“King . . . ?” Sam asked as he settled into her saddle and he swung up atop his dun.
“I meant Vernon Troxel,” the woman said, correcting herself quickly. She sidled the barb over to the dun and said under her breath, “He has the two of us call him King when he is drinking his whiskey and we are . . . all three alone.” She lowered her dark eyes in shame. “Please do not tell him I told you this—I only say this to you because you are a man of the law.” A fearful look came over her face.
“I won’t tell him,” Sam said. Letting out a breath, he looked out across the darkening desert flats. “You can talk as we ride, ma’am,” he offered, knowing there was more to come.
“Gracias,” she whispered. “I know I must ask God to forgive me for what I tell you now, but I wish he would die before this night is through.” She immediately crossed herself for saying such a thing. Tears glistened in her eyes.
Sam nodded and leveled the brim of his sombrero. Before he scooped Troxel up into his arms and carried him to the cart, Sam had seen the wispy figures of the two wolves circling farther out in the waning evening light. They were growing bolder, more brazen in their quest for food. He did not want to fire a gun, he told himself. Gazing off into the encroaching darkness, he saw other black forms appear as if out of nowhere and move about, falling onto the wide circling pattern as he and the woman and the mule cart moved forward at a slow pace.
“Careful what you wish for, señora,” he said quietly. “A night like this, you just might get it.”
In the purple starlit night the small party rode on, the Ranger taking the reins to the mule, leading the fearful animal and its cart at a slow but steady pace. Less than thirty yards out, the wolves had grown bolder. The shadowy animals howled and yipped and continued circling and threatening them. Riding alongside the cart, Sam heard the wounded man groan and mutter to himself inside the cart bed.
“They’ve come back for me, Pa . . . like I knowed they would,” he babbled mindlessly. “They ate Little Charlie’s head . . . ’fore I could stop them! Oh my Gawd!” he screamed. “They et his head!”
Sam turned his eyes to the woman, who sidled close to him in fear of the looming predators and the man’s hallucinations.
“Who knows what thoughts go on inside this man’s mind?” she said almost in a whisper. “It is said that all evil in a man’s life comes back to him when he is dying.” She crossed herself and drew her ragged blanket up around her shoulders. “His evil lies dark and heavy upon us. Can you feel it?”
“There’s plenty of evil to go around,” Sam said, not wanting to encourage further discussion on the matter. “What I can feel are desert wolves prowling our flanks.” He glanced around the purple night. “I hate firing a rifle, but we’re going have to do something pretty soon. They’re getting too bold.” Even as he spoke he saw a large wolf dive forward out of the greater darkness, lunge a few feet toward the mule, then circle back out of sight. “Testing us,” he added.
“They smell his warm blood,” the woman whispered. She looked up at the young girl and said, “Get down in the cart, Ana.”
The girl followed the woman’s order quickly. The woman turned back to the Ranger.
“If I slipped a knife into his heart, his blood would stop. We could leave him here for them, sí?”
Sam just looked at her for a moment.
Slipped a knife . . . ? Not stabbed or stuck, but slipped . . . , he thought. She made it sound painless, almost merciful. She was right that killing him and leaving him would solve their problem. But he shook his head.
“We’re not going to do that, ma’am,” he said.
“Then we must roll him out,” she urged, “and let the wolves do their own killing.”
“Stop it,” Sam said.
“No, God forgive me, of course we are not going to do that!” she said, crossing herself quickly. She paused. The two of them watched two wolves move into sight on the darkened trail ahead of them. The wolves stood with their head lowered, as if to bring the mule cart and the riders to a halt.
“Easy, Copper,” Sam said to the dun beneath him as the horse grumbled and chuffed under its breath. He drew a taut hand on the reins to the mule cart. Beside him the barb tried to balk, but the woman kept it settled. Sam gathered the dun’s reins and the mule’s into his leaf hand; he lifted the rifle from across his lap. The mere sight of the rifle coming up sent the wolves back into the darkness.
“All right, it’s time we do something,” he said.
“I will do it,” the woman said without hesitation.
“No, that’s not what I mean,” Sam said. “Here, hold these animals.” He held out both sets of reins.
The woman took the reins with an almost disappointed look in her dark eyes. She watched the Ranger slip down from the dun’s back, cocked rifle in hand, and walk to the rear of the cart.
“I don’t like doing this,” he murmured to himself. He untied the ropes holding Mickey Cousins’ body to the board and let it fall to the ground. He took the knife from inside his boot well as he looked at melon-sized stones littering the edges of the trail on either side. “Tough break, Mickey,” he said to the blanket-wrapped corpse.
The woman watched the Ranger from her saddle. The young girl peeked over the cart’s edge. From in the cart bed, Vernon Troxel awakened slightly and began anew his mindless litany to the wolves.
“I’ll kill every . . . damn one of yas! Damn your eyes!” he raged in warning. But his breathing was weak and shallow, and his words fell away into the starlit darkness. The wolves gathered just out of sight and watched the Ranger intently.
As the woman and the young girl watched the Ranger carry out his gruesome handiwork, they turned away from him from time to time and looked at each other with caged eyes. After a moment the Ranger had finished severing Cousins’ head from his body and walked back toward them washing his hands in a trickle of water from a canteen. He saw the young girl staring down at him over the edge of the cart.
“Sorry you two had to see that,” he said firmly to the woman as he capped the canteen. He took the rifle from under his arm and swung up into his saddle.
“We have seen much worse things than this,” the woman replied flatly, handing him the reins to his dun. They heard the rustle of paws out of sight in the sand. “Why did you carry the rocks? Was it to cover the body in respect for the dead?”
“Maybe . . . ,” Sam replied, not wanting to talk about it. “Maybe it’s to let them know they have to work for it . . . buy us some time to get out of here.” He took the reins to the mule cart, turned the dun to the trail and tapped his heels to its side.
The woman rode up close beside him as they heard the sound of wolves running alongside the trail in the opposite direction. Behind them they heard growling, arguing back and forth among the pack.
“You told Vernon Troxel you are hunting the scalp hunters, the men who are paid by the Mexicans to kill Apache?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s right,” Sam replied, putting the scene behind him out of his mind. “One of them anyway. He took part in killing a sheriff. Then he escaped jail.”
“Not because he kills the Apache and takes their scalps?” she asked.
“In this case, no,” Sam said. “It’s no longer lawful to take scalps in my country. But these mercenaries stick close to the border. They get the Apache stirred up and get them on their trail. Then they kill them in self-defense, doesn’t matter which side of the border they’re on.” He looked at her. “Sounds rotten, I know, but that’s how it’s done.”
“Rotten . . . ?” she asked curiously.
“Rotten means bad, terrible,” Sam said, clarifying the word for her.
“Bad I understand, and terrible too,” she said. She shook her head. “Rotten I have not heard, but I will remember. Please excuse my rotteninglés?” She managed a weary smile, calmer now that wolves had been pacified, for the time being.
“Your English is not rotten,ma’am. It’s a lot better than my Spanish,” he said. In fact. . . . As he looked at her he wondered how her English could be so good for a peasant Guatemalan, as Troxel claimed her and her daughter to be.
“I learn inglés from the mission schools. After the Spanish priests whipped Spanish into our heads, they left, and in my time the mission school taught us inglés, only without the whip.”
“I understand,” Sam said. Although it was not really a satisfactory answer, he let it go. “You must be sleepy.” He nodded at the cart. “You and your daughter rest in the cart. I’ll wake you when we stop closer to Iron Point.”
At the mention of the young girl and the cart, the woman sat upright in the saddle and adjusted herself and batted her eyes to ward off sleep.
“No, I will stay awake and keep you company,” she said. “You must excuse my daughter for falling asleep. She is so very young, and she needs a child’s rest so she can someday grow to become a woman.” She looked at Sam as if to gauge his thoughts on the young girl.
“I understand,” Sam said. “Then we’ll talk until you get too tired. Then you can get some sleep.” Even as he spoke, he knew the woman was up for the night, posting herself as guard between him and young Ana. . . .
Behind them in the night the wolves had scraped away the rocks and gone into a feeding frenzy. The woman looked back once nervously, then turned forward and gave Sam a tired smile. And they rode on.
* * *
In the silver-gray hour before dawn, the Ranger brought the mule cart and his dun to a halt alongside a stone-lined water hole that the mule’s and horses’ noses had brought them to, just off the sand-packed trail. As Sam and the woman stood beside the mule and the horses and let them drink, the girl looked down from the cart’s edge and summoned the woman without saying a word. Sam watched as the woman turned away and climbed up the side of the cart. While the two women whispered back and forth, he scanned the other side of the water hole and the cliffs and hill line stretching above it.
“He is dead, Ranger,” the woman said quietly over the cart’s edge. “Por favor, come see for yourself.”
But Sam didn’t respond right away. He continued scanning the hills and the cliffs that lay shrouded in a silvery looming mist.
“Open the rear gate,” he said over his shoulder barely above a whisper.
The woman and the young girl looked at each other, both sensing a wariness in the Ranger’s tone.
Sam watched the hills closely as he heard the rear loading gate of the cart creak down to the dirt. When he was certain the cart was open from the rear, he stepped over and turned and looked at the pale lifeless face of the slaver. He glanced up at the bandaging on the dead man’s chest, seeing it looked no different from before. He turned his gaze to the young girl, then back at the hills and rock across the water hole.
“Died in his sleep, did he?” he said quietly over his shoulder.
The girl stared to speak, but the woman cut her off.
“Sí, yes, he dies in his sleep, this rotten man,” she said. “You heard him all night, crying out to the dead, as if beckoning them to come for him.” Her tone was defensive.
“Yes, I heard him,” Sam said, knowing that it would be pointless to try to suggest that the girl had anything to do with the slaver’s death. And if he asked and she admitted it, what good would it do? What purpose would it serve?
The law . . . ? What law? he asked himself, here in the border badlands where men, women and children were slaughtered for the color and shine of their hair.
He still stared off at the hills.
“We did not throw this rotten man out on the trail for the wolves to eat while he still lived, sí?” the woman said, unsure where the Ranger stood on the slaver’s death.
“No, we didn’t do that,” Sam said, understanding her meaning, giving her and the young girl the relief they appeared to need for some act they might or might not have contributed to.
“If we feed him to the wolves now that he is dead,” the woman went on to say, not realizing the Ranger had settled the matter in his mind, “would it be wrong, any more wrong than when you fed the wolves the body—”
“Get the gate up!” Sam said sharply, cutting her off. He gripped his rifle in his hands, ready to raise it to his shoulder.
The woman looked stunned. “I—I did not mean to say you did a bad thing—”
“Get the gate shut now, ma’am, pronto!” Sam said, again cutting her short. “We’ve got company.”
He heard the woman gasp; he heard the gate creak up and slam shut as he hurried forward between both horses. Grabbing the watering horses by their bridles, he jerked them back from the water, to the side edge of the cart, making them and himself a smaller target. There was nothing he could do for the mule without turning the whole cart around—no time for that. This would have to do for now, he told himself.
As a last resort before firing the rifle, he scanned the rocky hillside one more time.
“Hello the water hole,” he called out, letting whoever was there know he’d seen them, even though what he’d seen was only a slightest movement of a ragged hat along an edge of jagged rock.
“Hello yourself,” a gruff voice called out in reply. “I hope you know if we didn’t mean to be seen, you wouldn’t be seeing us.”
“Sounds fair,” Sam said. “Now stand and come forward, be seen proper.”
“Proper? Ha!” said the voice. “If proper goes to heaven, I’m plumb bound for hell.”
Sam watched as shadowy figures rose among the rocks like ghosts. The man talking was tall and broad-shouldered, dressed in fringed buckskins and a battered Confederate cavalry uniform. The men on either side of him wore slouch hats and ragged coats. But they were smaller, their hair long, beneath drooping hat brims. As they stepped around from behind the rocks, Sam saw knee-high desert moccasins, loincloths. Some carried short-stock rifles; others carried bows with arrows strung and ready.
“That’s close enough,” Sam said when the seven figures stopped at the water’s edge straight across, twenty feet from him. “Who are you? Why are you trailing us?” He had no idea they’d been trailing him, but he tried it to see what he’d get.
“Blame it on these Lipans,” the big white man said. “They love tracking folks, ’specially if the folks have horses fit to steal or eat.” He touched his hat brim. “I’m the Reverend George Tremble—former Reverend, that is. I just got used to saying it.” He gave a dark, flat grin. “I’m taking to saving the Lipans here from hell, or at least making them fear it something awful. Unlike some Apache, they druther speak with their hands than their mouths—it makes for better table manners.” Again the grin. “But some take it as an insult.”
“I don’t take it one way or the other,” Sam said. “I have nothing to settle with the Lipan. But you’d better break them of that tracking habit,” he added, the rifle still level and ready. “I might think you came here to kill and rob us.” As he spoke Tremble bent his head a little and looked at the badge on Sam’s chest.
“Well, look at you, then, a lawman, no less,” he said, trying to sound half-friendly, half-threatening. “I’m not going to lie to you, lawman,” he said. “You’re about half-right. These fellows want your horses. Myself, being red-blooded, I want the womenfolk.” His grin widened. “I told them it would be better to reason with you than just kill you outright, gunfire being as loud as it is.”
“You’re not getting them,” Sam said. He eyed his rifle sights on the center of the man’s chest.
“One second. . . .” Tremble held his finger up, signaling a pause, as he turned and signed the warrior beside him. Then he turned back to Sam.
“I’m through talking,” Sam warned.
“Now, hold on, lawman,” said Tremble. “We’re dickering here. He says to tell you we’re only taking the two horses and one woman. Is that so bad?” He tried giving a pleasant expression.
“Adios, Tremble,” Sam said, squeezing the trigger.
“Wait—!” Tremble shouted, but it was too late. The Ranger’s shot split a large silver medallion hanging at his chest, picked him up and hurled him backward onto the rocky hillside. Without wasting a second, Sam levered a fresh round into the Winchester and swung its sights onto the leader standing close by. The Lipan leader had already brought his short rifle up. But before he could get a shot off, the roar of the shotgun from inside the mule cart sent him flying backward. The second roar of the double-barrel sent another Indian to his knees. Bloody, he raked and scraped blindly, taking himself over behind a rock, while the others broke and ran.
Sam got off another shot that caught one of the retreating warriors in the back of his shoulder and spun him like a top. Wild shots resounded toward them as the remaining Lipans found cover and began returning fire. But Sam knew it was too late for them to put up a fight. Their leader was down, and so was Tremble, who was no doubt the real leader of the ragged group. Looking up, Sam saw the woman look down at him from the cart’s upper edge.
“You are all right, sí?” she asked. A bullet thumped into the cart’s rear gate.
“Stay down,” Sam said. “Yes, I’m all right. Are you?” He spoke to the rough plank side of the cart.
“Yes, Ana and I are both all right,” the woman said. “What do we do now?”
“Reload and sit still,” Sam said. He saw the leader struggling on the ground straight across the water hole. He took aim on the rocky ground just in front of the wounded, bloody man and fired. Dirt kicked up in the wounded man’s face. Sam knew the others had seen the shot.
“How do you want him, dead or alive?” he shouted, hoping someone would understand English. When no one answered he called out, “Get up over the hill. When you’re gone, I’ll leave him here.” He waited again, this time watching the hillside, noting that the firing had ceased. As he watched, he eased forward, gathered the frightened mule’s reins and turned the cart away from the water hole. The horses turned with the cart, their reins tied to its side. “Keep the shotgun ready,” he said to the side of the cart. “We make it to the sand flats we’ll be all right. They won’t take us on out in the open.”
“I am loaded,” she said. “Do what you must.”
Sam heard the click of the shotgun snap shut.
“Stay inside with your daughter until we reach the flats,” he said. “I’ll have your horse ready and waiting.”
As Sam led the cart farther away from the water, he unhitched the dun and slipped atop it. Once in the saddle, he nudged the dun and led the cart and the other horse at a quicker pace. He heard the woman call out to him from inside the cart.
“Now that this rotten man is dead, Ana and I may choose to go as we please. Is it not so?”
“It’s so,” Sam said, finding it an odd time to bring up such a thing.
“Then we choose to go with you,” the woman said.
“I understand,” Sam said, hurrying along, keeping watch over his shoulder. “I’ll do my best to get you to Iron Point safe and sound. But from there you two will be on your own.”
The woman looked suddenly bewildered, having been long denied the freedom of her own decisions. Sam glanced at her, then back to the trail.
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” he said. “You and your daughter will be all right. You’re nobody’s slaves anymore.”
A hard wind had kicked up in the late afternoon as Turner Pridemore and his band of mercenaries swung down from their saddles inside the gates of the old Spanish fortress at Iron Point. Mexican soldiers armed with French rifles ran in from every direction through the swirling dust. They filled the street and watched the rough-looking men closely. The captain of the fort, Luis Penza, stepped out of the Dama Desnuda Bordello buttoning his tunic.
“So, you have bounty receipts for me, eh?” the captain said in good English. A hard gust stood his hair straight up; he pressed it down. Behind him two scantily clad women watched from the bordello’s open doorway.
“Bounty receipts? Scalps, I say,” Pridemore replied, “some long, some short.” As he said the word short, he cut a sharp stare at the two women’s lower bellies. The women stepped back in terror.
“Buenas noches, ladies,” he said, touching his hat brim toward them. The women stepped back farther.
Pridemore grinned and spat tobacco and wiped a hand across his dust-streaked lips. He gestured for his men to bring up the three large burlap grain sacks they had filled with their wet, bloody trophies. Flies spun and hummed and stayed close to the bags as the men emptied the grisly contents on the ground.
“I did not tell you to dump them here in the street,” the captain said.
“You didn’t tell me not to either,” Pridemore said.
The captain eyed him closely.
“I have seen you before,” he said. “You run the trading post on the edge of the sand flats. They call you Bigfoot.” He glanced down at Pridemore’s large feet.
“They still do,” said Pridemore. He pressed his hat down on his head and turned his hand toward the scalps and the swirling flies that regathered above them between blasts of wind. “I used to run the trading post. As you can see I’ve branched out some.” As he spoke above the wind, he pulled a folded contract from inside his shirt and held it out.
The captain took the folded paper and looked him up and down, having last seen him wearing a leather clerk’s apron. Now Pridemore wore buckskin and fur clothing he’d taken from a dead scalper after a recent run-in with the Apache. Breastwork on his shirt was made up of finger bones entwined in platted strands of human hair. He wore a stiff leather hat and battered Mexican boots that reached halfway up his thighs.
“This contract is not made with you,” the captain said, the paperwork fluttering hard in his hand. “It is made with Señor Erskine Cord. I know this man Cord.”
“You don’t know him anymore, Capitán. You knew him,” said Pridemore. “He got himself kilt in Mesa Grande by a Ranger name of Sam Burrack. I run this bunch now.” He gestured at the contract in the captain’s hand. “You’ll see on the back there that he signed the contract over to me, all legal-like.”
The captain turned the contract over and read the back.
“Signed by Cord, witnessed by his segundo, Sterling Childs, also recently deceased,” said Pridemore. Both Cord’s and Childs’ signatures were forged by Pridemore, but it wouldn’t matter, he’d decided.
It was true that both Cord and Childs were dead. The Mexican government wanted the Apache killed. Turner “Bigfoot” Pridemore and his newly commanded mercenaries were killing them, almost on a daily basis.
Excerpted from "Scalpers"
Copyright © 2015 Ralph Cotton.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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