Twister Malone and Chuckaluck Thompson have no love for the sun-blasted plains of West Texas. They made their names in the cool mountain air of Colorado, and are headed to a friend’s hacienda in Mexico because, both at the ripe old age of thirty, they’re ready to retire. No more high-noon showdowns for Twister and Chuckaluck. They have years of roping, riding, and dozing to look forward to—but first they must survive the crucible of Sleepy Valley.
The two friends are passing through the idyllic patch of ranchland when they come across a quartet of bandits, wearing masks that reveal only one eye, hanging an innocent rancher from the tree. The gang of killers has terrorized Sleepy Valley for months, stringing up anyone brave enough to refuse their greedy demands. But Twister and Chuckaluck have never backed down from a fight, and they aren’t about to start. The sinister plot they uncover, however, will bring them face-to-face with the most dangerous desperadoes north of the Rio Grande.
The Hangmen of Sleepy Valley is the 1st book in the Twister and Chuckaluck Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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The Hangmen of Sleepy Valley
A Twister and Chuckaluck Mystery
By Brett Halliday
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1950 Jefferson House, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Twister Malone and Chuckaluck Thompson rode silently and at a comfortable pace across deserted Sleepy Valley in Western Texas, dust-filled eyes focused on the red glow of the setting sun which outlined the rugged peaks of the Davis Mountains rising sharply in the south. Sitting erect, Twister's long thin body was tense and alert; while Chuckaluck's rotund figure was lazily slouched in the saddle upon the buckskin which loitered a neck's length behind Twister's roan.
Herds of sleek cattle on either side of the trail shook off the lethargy of the hot afternoon, spread out to graze on the thick bunch grass growing profusely in the rich sandy loam. Jack rabbits dared to emerge from coverts beneath thorned mesquite bushes; and the slinking form of a coyote showed momentarily on a ridge not far distant.
A sense of rebirth, of awakening, comes to all living things in that sun-drenched land each evening as the shadows lengthen and the relentless heat of afternoon is driven before a cooling breeze sweeping down from the mountains.
Both men lifted their faces gratefully to the beckoning cool of twilight. To them, the spreading vastness of the western plains of Texas was an unpleasant discovery. A hot, cruel, thirsty land — unlike the shaded fastnesses of the Arizona badlands, utterly unlike the cool mountain trails of Colorado which they had ridden together for many years.
They were uncomfortable here, eager to be through with Texas and across the Rio Grande to complete their journey at the hacienda of a friend where they planned to settle down to a life of indolent ease such as befitted two men who had reached the ripe old age of thirty. With solemn vows to forsake the danger trails they were accustomed to ride, they had started this long trip a month ago from Colorado, but a month was a long time for Twister to steer clear of trouble, and Chuckaluck was worried by signs of restlessness in his partner.
Twister had been laughing off his fears as they rode into the twilight, and now he turned in the saddle to face Chuckaluck, waving toward the mountains, red-rimmed by the dying sun.
"That there must be Limpia Pass, I reckon. That gap just to the left of where the sun's goin' down. We'll make it through there tomorrow."
Chuckaluck's round face was passively expressionless except for mild blue eyes that puckered beneath white brows. He replied "Mebby," in a tone of mournful doubt.
"What yuh mean ... 'mebby'?" Twister argued. The jagged scar of an ancient knife-cut twisted the right side of his lean tanned face into an expression of satanic mirth. "It's a easy day's ride from Balmorhea to Fort Davis through the gap. An' we'll shore make Balmorhea by dark. Cain't be more'n three-four miles to town now."
Chuckaluck nodded. "Reckon not. But I shore hate to think aboot what kinda trouble yo're li'ble to stir up 'fore we kin get outta Balmorhea."
The left side of Twister's face was deadly serious. "Ain't I been tellin' yuh all day long I'm aimin' to dodge trouble ... if I hafta crawl in the middle of a cactus bush to hide from it?"
"Thet's what yuh been tellin' me," Chuckaluck drawled sadly. "But I been knowin' yuh too long to believe yuh, Twister."
"Won't be no trouble heah," Twister said with blithe assurance. "Look around at this here peaceful valley. Fat cows an' green grass. Folks stay happy an' contented when they live in a place like this ... if they don't burn up to a crisp. I'm bettin' I couldn't stir up no trouble in Balmorhea town if I was to try."
"An' I'm bettin' yuh could raise a hullabaloo inside the Pearly Gates if yuh was to set yore dumb head to it," Chuckaluck growled.
Twister bared his head to the cooling breeze and cast his keen eyes over the landscape. "Jes' look at them cottonwood trees," he said, by way of changing the subject. "Must be water there. I reckon Balmorhea cain't be far beyond."
"Hope not," Chuckaluck muttered. "M'belly's been thinkin' m'throat's been stretchin' on a cottonwood tree, mebby, the past three hours. An' m'hawss could shore do with a drink of that water yo're talkin' aboot."
Twister's roan lifted his head and snorted, came out of the steady dogtrot to a faster pace as his nostrils caught the scent of water ahead. Chuckaluck's horse followed the pace, keeping a persistent neck-length behind. Far ahead, a couple of miles beyond the blurred grove of cottonwoods, the dusty roofs of a village showed through the deepening gloom. That was Balmorhea, trading center for this vast rich range country; the only town between Pecos City and the village of Fort Davis which nestled high in the mountains beyond.
Tensed in the saddle, Twister shifted his gaze from side to side as dusk closed in, an expression of challenging boldness in his gray eyes, a vibrant alertness in his whole bearing. Looking at him from the left, one saw a lean-jawed youthful face with a look of reckless good humor in the wide mouth and direct gray eyes. From the other side, the scar running upward from the lobe of his ear reached the outer corner of his eye, lifting it in a permanent satanic leer which gave the impression of heedless dare-deviltry.
Acutely conscious of his scarred face and its effect upon strangers, Twister had learned to face life with challenging distrust. As a result of this self-training it had become a habit with him to live up to the promise made by the scarred side of his face. "Hell," Chuckaluck had often said, "has a way of poppin' as soon as Twister shows up in a strange place."
Not that Chuckaluck ever ran from trouble. His grumbling was a pose, and Twister knew it. He knew his partner would never be more than his habitual neck's length behind in backing up his play when trouble popped. And Twister had a strong suspicion that Chuckaluck considered it a splendid vantage point ... that short distance at which he loitered whether walking or riding.
Thus far they had encountered no situation which they were unable to manage successfully.
Suddenly, in the murk of early night, the statuesque figure of a man, mounted and motionless, was outlined ahead of them. His horse stood across the trail, as if to block it ... or to wait for the two riders to approach.
"I been wonderin'," Twister muttered, "whether anybody lived in this doggoned country. That jasper up ahaid is the first man we've laid eyes on since leavin' Pecos City."
"Me, I don't cotton none to the looks of that feller," Chuckaluck said gloomily from back of Twister's shoulder. "'Pears to me he's got a onfriendly look to him."
"Sho' now," Twister scoffed, "you cain't even see his face this far off. Trouble with you, Chuckaluck, yo're allus lookin' on the dark side of things. Like as not he's a welcomin' committee from the city of Balmorhea."
Chuckaluck grunted in disgust and they rode on silently. Twister said nothing of his thought that there was something eerily peculiar about the way the rider sat with his horse crosswise the road and about the air of intent watchfulness which he discerned in the man's silent regard.
As they drew nearer, they saw that he wore rough range attire with thorn-scarred chaparajos and a black Stetson pulled low over his eyes, aiding the shadows of night to hide his face. Heavy gunbelts crossed his hips, and his right hand rested on the butt of a holstered six-shooter in an attitude of ominous warning.
"More an' more," said Chuckaluck dolefully when they were a hundred yards away, "I got me that feelin' in m'belly like we're stickin' our necks out. What say we jes' turn off an' make us a circle ..."
Twister didn't reply. He was sitting very straight in the saddle, peering ahead through the gloom at the rider who blocked their way. His keen perception told him there was something about the man's face ... he couldn't quite make it out ... but there was something ...
He relaxed when they were within thirty feet of the waiting stranger, turned to Chuckaluck with a satanic grin and spoke loudly enough to be heard by the rider.
"Hell! It's the boogey-man. He's got him a black mask an' he's all fixed up to skeer little chillun, Chuckaluck."
He reined in his horse, still grinning. The grin slowly faded from the left side of his face as the masked rider lifted his left hand and shoved the broad brim of his hat back so they could see him clearly. There was something inexplicably sinister in his silence and his rigid posture. And most sinister of all was the suddenly revealed face that showed only one eye. His entire face was covered with a black mask in which only one eye-hole had been cut.
While Twister and Chuckaluck stared, a harsh voice issued through the mouth slit.
"I wouldn't laugh, strangers. It ain't considered healthy hereabouts."
"M'pardner, here," said Chuckaluck quickly and with forced affability, "has got a plumb o'nery sense o' humor. He don't mean half what he says."
The man's one eye was fixed steadily on Twister. "This road is closed fer the time bein'," he grunted. "Effen yuh don't want trouble, you'd best cut a wide circle around them cottonwoods."
"Shore, stranger," said Chuckaluck placatingly. "Anything to oblige. C'mon, Twister. No call for us to horn in where we ain't wanted."
He started to back his buckskin cayuse away, but Twister sat slouched in the saddle as if he had not heard. Chuckaluck groaned inwardly as he saw his partner's hand dive into his shirt pocket and come out with the makings. And when Twister spoke in a silky-smooth voice, Chuckaluck stopped resignedly and dropped a hand to his six-gun.
He knew that trouble had spit in Twister's face and spattered all over him.
Twister regarded the stranger while his fingers nimbly fashioned a cigarette from brown paper and flake tobacco. "I reckon they's water up at them cottonwoods, ain't there?" he asked.
"What's it to you," the masked rider snarled. "You ain't gonna git clost enuff to see."
"Seems like I jes' cain't stomach no man tellin' me what I kin do and what I cain't do," Twister drawled amiably. His thumbnail scratched the head of a match, and in the revealing flare, his scarred cheek was twisted in a saturnine grin which spelled trouble in capital letters to those who knew Twister Malone.
He sucked smoke into his lungs and flipped the match away. "Not even a one-eyed polecat that hides his face behind a mask," he continued evenly. "You got yore hand on yore gun ... empty leather, yuh dang owl-hooter."
The rider's gun hand swept upward and orange flame crashed the dusk. Twister set spurs to his roan. His reckless laughter echoed the thunderous report as his horse leaped forward and collided heavily with the gunman's mount. Making a grab for the mask, Twister's fingers missed, and the heavy barrel of a .45 smashed down on his wrist. Cursing savagely, Twister pulled his own gun and whirled his horse about to look at death in the muzzle of the masked rider's Colt.
A flat report came out of the night behind them ... the sodden thump of a bullet into flesh. The masked rider slumped in his saddle with a snarl of pain. The leveled six-gun went clattering to the ground as he spurred his horse forward and away into the dusk. Twister futilely emptied his gun at his shadowy figure fleeing toward the cottonwoods.
"This is one helluva note," said Chuckaluck sadly, riding up while Twister reloaded his single-action .45.
"Damned if it ain't," Twister growled. "What'd yuh wanta waste lead pluggin' him in the shoulder for? He got plumb away."
"What'd I wanta ...! Why, yuh addle-brained galoot! I pumped lead where it'd do the most good. What'd yuh jump him for when he had holt of his gun?"
"I wanted to grab that mask offen his face an' see if he was shore enough one-eyed," Twister grinned. "An' I knowed you'd be backin' up my play."
"Gawd knows what we done started now," Chuckaluck sighed. "One shore thing, we're gonna steer clear of them cottonwoods where we ain't wanted."
"An' our hawsses plumb dyin' for a drink?"
"They kin do 'thout till we get to Balmorhea," Chuckaluck said grimly. "It's a long ways to Mexico, an' we ain't got no time to be messin' up in what ain't our business. Le's be ridin'." He puffed out his plump cheeks, determinedly neck-reined his horse off the trail in a direction that would take him well clear of the clump of cottonwoods ahead.
"Adios, amigo," Twister called out mockingly. "Stake me out a bed in Balmorhea when yuh get there. An' if I don't come driftin' in, yuh kin figger I musta met up with One-eye again an' he beat me to the draw."
Chuckaluck stopped and yelled plaintively: "C'mon, yuh dang fool. We're strangers hereabouts an' they ain't no tellin' what kinda trouble ..."
"I still hate to have any jasper tell me where I cain't ride," Twister shouted back through the deepening shadows. He spurred away down the road toward the spot he had been warned to stay away from.
Chuckaluck reluctantly turned back into the road and followed, shaking his head and groaning. He had known from the beginning that any protest would be useless. Twister slowed to let Chuckaluck catch up with him, and they galloped on together, tired and thirsty mounts increasing speed without urging as the smell of water came stronger to their nostrils.
"Don't look like there's nobody here," Twister muttered, plainly disappointed, as they approached the cottonwoods. "I hoped mebby One-eye had some friends ..."
The rest of the sentence stuck in his throat as he stared through the enveloping gloom at a wraithlike shadow of a man apparently dancing a jig beneath a high limb of one of the trees.
"Yo're wrong," Chuckaluck grunted. "They's somebody here, awright, but I'm bettin' it ain't One-eye."
They slithered to the ground and ran forward to a man hanging by his neck at the end of a rope tossed over one of the high limbs ... a body which revolved slowly, limbs grotesquely twitching in a dance of death.
Twister's knife flashed and Chuckaluck gently caught the limp body as the strands of rope parted. Easing him down to the ground, he ordered Twister to light a match.
Then they stood staring at a crudely lettered placard pinned to the man's chest. It read: "I LET SUNDOWN CATCH ME IN SLEEPY VALLEY" and at the bottom of the sheet of paper was a single eye staring malignantly upward in the flickering light.
Kneeling beside the man and feeling of his pulse, Twister exclaimed, "He ain't daid yet! Grab his laigs an' he'p me carry him to the spring and douse him. It ain't so dark over there in the clearin' where the spring is, and we kin see how bad off he is."CHAPTER 2
The victim of the hangman's noose was long and lanky, without much meat on his bones. He hung limply, seemingly lifeless, as Chuckaluck got an arm underneath his knees and Twister lifted his shoulders. They rushed him to a gurgling spring at the base of the cottonwoods where Twister unceremoniously let his head and shoulders splash in the cold clear water.
Dragging the body back by its bootheels, Chuckaluck protested mildly: "Yuh shouldn't orta be so rough. No use to drown him if he ain't awready daid."
The man came to life, choking and sputtering. The muscles of one leg contracted, then shot out with a mighty kick that caught Chuckaluck in the chest and sent him staggering backward off balance.
"There y'are," said Twister triumphantly. "He ain't daid, just like I told you." He squatted down beside the writhing body and put his hand on the young man's shoulder. "Jes' take it easy, pardner. Yo're among friends. Yo'll get yore breath back in a minute."
"Who ... who ... what ...?" The dazed man shook Twister's arm off violently and tried to sit up, sank back wearily, one hand going to his throat while his breath wheezed in and out in long-drawn, tortured breaths. "The ... the one-eyed hangmen ...?" he gasped.
"They high-tailed it," Twister assured him. "They thought you was done for, but that stringy neck o' yourn stretched a mite 'stead of poppin'." And he chuckled grimly.
Chuckaluck was standing a little withdrawn peering anxiously through the dusk, straining his ears for sounds. "They're li'ble to come back for a look-see an' ketch us with our pants down," he said. "How many of 'em was there, young feller?"
"Four." The man shuddered and sat up, staring around wildly in the half light. "Four ... all of 'em one-eyed."
Excerpted from The Hangmen of Sleepy Valley by Brett Halliday. Copyright © 1950 Jefferson House, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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