There was a time when Jake Worthy wouldn’t have been arrested for killing the gambler in the Tucson saloon. The card cheat drew his gun first—Jake shot only in self-defense. But the West is on its way to being civilized, and the sheriff has no choice but to throw Jake in jail. After six months behind bars, he is released and immediately sets out for home and his sweetheart. His first night on the trail, a bandit shoots Jake’s horse and leaves him to die. Stranded in the desert with a bullet in his leg, he starts walking, dreaming of the woman he may never see again.
Near exhaustion, Jake is picked up by three riders bristling with guns. They give him food, shelter, and a bandage for his leg. Without their help, he will die, so Jake joins their gang, starting down a path that will lead him right back to prison—or the grave.
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The Reluctant Gun Hand
By Paul Lederer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Logan Winters
All rights reserved.
Jake Worthy wasn't so angry with them for shooting him, but they didn't have to shoot his horse as well! Montero was the horse's name – a big, deep-chested red roan with legs that might have been a little slender for its bulk, but carried him well. Now it lay dead on the rocky ground beside him. Jake had scooted up next to the animal on his wounded leg, meaning to use the animal's body as a rampart, but no more shots rang out, no shadowy figures approached him in the haze of twilight.
His first thought was that it must have been Indians, for he was deep into Apache territory, but no Indian would deliberately kill a fine, very usable horse.
The other matter was the weapon that had been fired at him. He knew by the snap of the bullets, their rapid loosing that it was no primitive musket-rifle, but a quite new repeater, possibly one of the spanking new '73 Winchesters which were starting to appear on the far boundaries of the country, though not yet in profusion. The new, much improved leveraction rifles were still too expensive for most men to purchase because of their rarity.
Jake himself carried a now outdated Spencer .56 repeater for which it was getting harder to find ammunition. The weapon had served him well, however. In fact it had saved his life more than once, and he had grown accustomed to it. He had become more aware lately of how quickly time was passing him by, but a man seems to pause at a certain point in his life, and if he finds himself comfortable enough, he no longer pursues change just for the sake of it.
It was growing rapidly dark; the sunset was a wash of orange and crimson against the sky above the White Mountains. Jake had planned on making Rio Lobo this evening. Now he could no longer be sure that he would make it through the night.
His eyes continued to search the rough country around him, a land devoid of vegetation except for stands of nopal cactus and Spanish Dagger plants. The shadows were gathering in the folds in the hills, and though the earth beneath him was warm, the sky was darkening. He had to get up and move. The furrow carved by a passing bullet in his thigh was painful, but it had nearly stopped bleeding. He knotted his bandanna around the wound and tried to stand, his eyes still searching the perimeter. He had neither heard nor seen anything, man or animal, for the last hour as he lay behind his slowly stiffening horse.
That did not mean that no one was out there.
He could even now be in the sights of some patient rifleman, but he did not think so. It was a gamble to move, a gamble to remain where he lay. One thing was certain, he was not going to reach Rio Lobo on this night as he had planned. Becky Holland would just have to wait, but then she was used to waiting for Jake Worthy. He frequently arrived late, sometimes not at all. He had intended to put a stop to all of that this time.
He had gotten off lightly with only a six-month prison term, but the six months had seemed like six years. Jake was tired of the game, tired of peering through bars, spending lonely nights trying to remember what he had profited from years of scrambling around. Nothing, nothing at all with the possible exception of Becky Holland. He meant to make it up to her now if he could ever get off this damned desert!
He reflected that on his release from prison he should have just bought a stagecoach ticket instead of trying to ride through the White Mountains, but he was accustomed to having a horse between his legs when he traveled, and there was a sense of freedom to it so opposite to the depressing, dehumanizing days wasted away in a thick-walled cell. A stagecoach's confines seemed a continuation of the prison, although he knew the thought was ridiculous.
He returned to what he had always been – a free man alone without shackles or restrictions – out of habit and because of the sheer joy riding free lent him.
He paused for a while to look down at the body of Montero, then began trying to salvage what gear he could. There was no way he was going to tote his saddle across this rugged land with a bum leg, and he left it regretfully. He snatched up his bedroll. He would have a rough time of it out here without blankets. Then he slid his well-worn Spencer repeater from the scabbard, tugged his canteen from beneath Montero's shoulder and started on with night coming, unsure of his destination on this savage, settling evening.
Jake knew that the moon would be rising sometime after ten o'clock – a waning quarter moon which provided only meager light to travel by, but hopefully enough to prevent him from plunging into some unexpected gorge. The moonlight would be some help. Jake did not know this country except in generalities.
Ahead lay the foothills, uninhabited as far as he knew, and then the twenty-mile wide desert salt flats. Beyond these, in the east, the land grew green and fertile again. Not too terrible a ride with water and a good horse. Except now he was afoot, and the distance seemed a menacing stretch of inhospitable land. If there was water along the way, he did not know where, and he doubted it. There would be no shade, of that he was certain, and little in the way of wildlife. Beyond that, in the green strip, lay Rio Lobo where Becky Holland waited. Would she be crying, wringing her hands, or simply shrugging, knowing that Jake had disappointed her once more. Tiring of it completely, would she turn her attentions to another, more settled man?
Why couldn't he have simply stepped on to a stagecoach?
A hard head and a lust for freedom – well, he had his freedom now, he thought, as he staggered and lurched along on a wounded leg, alone in the desert night in unknown territory. The land was rough, rocky slopes with scattered cholla cactus. There was no visible trail down the hillside or none he could make out at this hour before sundown.
As to the reason Jake had gotten himself thrown in prison, it was something that might have been considered trivial only a few years back. But civilization, as they called it, had crept into the western lands, and in Tucson they had civic committees as they called the collection of fat men in town suits and their fat wives who mostly sat around in the town hall sipping tea and disparaging the rough and tumble men who were the true founders of the town and others like it across the West.
They were civilized people and wished for everyone else to be as they were.
Tucson now had not only a town marshal and a corps of deputies, but also a judge and a courthouse. There had to be some way to rein in what they considered the excesses of the rough old-time crowd who had blazed their trails for them, fought the Indians and pushed the frontier this far west. Now they were viewed by the late-comers as a rowdy bunch of tobacco-chewing, hard drinking, gun-toting menaces to society as they saw it.
One day these stiff-shirted people would rule the West. Jake hoped he would be in his grave before then.
Sitting in on a poker game at the Fairview Saloon, he had caught the dealer palming cards and called him on it. The gambler, whose name was Ned Quirk, had pulled a nickel-plated derringer from his vest and raised it in Jake's direction, Jake kicked his own chair backward, drawing and firing as he fell. It wasn't the best position to be aiming from, but he had gotten the gambler. It was not a killing shot. The bullet from Jake's pistol had literally parted Quirk's hair, grooving his scalp from front to back. The damage was trivial, but the blood flowed copiously and Quirk's face was a crimson mask as he fled the table.
They had to arrest Jake Worthy, of course. They wanted to try him for attempted murder, but witnesses told the truth of the matter and, in the end, the judge – who had also lost some table money to Quirk – sentenced Jake to a relatively light six-month sentence for negligent discharge of a firearm within the city limits. Of course, in the old days, Jake wouldn't have even been arrested, it being a clear case of self-defense. But those days were gone, Jake supposed. He and others of his ilk just did not fit in with the new ways coming.
The stiff shirts in Tucson were already calling for banning handguns, gambling, prostitution and sales of liquor in the city. Who knew if they'd ever get their way, but they were having a grand time doing what they did – it seemed to make them feel superior to the rag-tag sort.
When Jake had done his time, he wanted nothing more than to ride the wide land which was exactly as it had always been. The stiff-shirts hadn't yet found a way to tame it.
Becky Holland who had waited patiently in Rio Lobo, had written him twice a week while he was in prison, and her letters had helped him pass the time there. She did say once, 'But, Jake, it seems I've been waiting half of my life for you to come home and settle down. Please hurry.'
He had been trying – until this.
He could no longer see the sad body of Montero as the shadows of night settled and he trudged farther away from the ambush site. Once he thought he saw a distant light, but it was quickly extinguished, like the brief flaring of a damp torch. Jake tripped over an unseen rock and went to his knees and elbows against the stony ground. It was foolish to go on. He might step off into some unseen ravine or sinkhole. It was already tough going on his wounded leg. Suppose he were to break a bone?
Reluctantly, then, he rolled out his bed, intending to catch some sleep before the moon rose later and the light was better for traveling. It took him fifteen minutes to kick the small rocks away from the piece of ground he had chosen, and still, of course, he did not get them all. It was an uncomfortable place to sleep under a sky that promised to grow cold as the stars blossomed across its vast, dark face.
With his wounded leg still alternately throbbing and burning and the stony ground nudging his back, he slept uncomfortably, but did manage to catch a few hours of sleep. His eyes flickered open as the moon rose from the desert distances. The way it shimmered across the silver-gray landscape was almost magical. It brought little light, but after the near total darkness of a few hours before, its strange glimmering illuminated the rises and declivities of the long hills enough to convince Jake Worthy that it was safe enough to travel on; besides, his sleep had not been exactly restful and he knew that the night would grow no more comfortable.
Rising, he nearly collapsed again immediately. His wounded leg had stiffened up on him. There was nothing for it but to work through the awkwardness and the pain, hoping movement would loosen it up again.
He started on, limping, staggering, stumbling toward the desert floor beyond. He wondered now how far he would be able to walk even after he hit flat ground. Tomorrow would arrive with searing desert heat and he was a wounded animal. The next time he would take the stagecoach like a tamed man. It had been bred into him that a man takes care of himself rather than trusting himself in other hands, no matter what. He was beginning to find flaws in that theory of self-reliance.
A narrow arroyo forced him to go upslope to detour around it, not wanting to have to slip down to its bottom and then be forced to scramble up again. His leg was not capable of such a climb.
He was alone on a desert mountain range in a haunted night, wading through intermittent pools of moon shadow cast by boulders along the way.
And then, suddenly, he was not alone.
Who they were, where they could have come from, Jake Worthy could not guess, but there they were directly ahead of him, standing spaced out along a rocky ridge. There were three of them wearing long coats. Their hats were tugged down far enough that their eyes did not show in the moonlight, only dark suggestions of them.
Not a single one of the shadowed apparitions moved as Jake dragged himself farther up the slope, needing to circle the head of the arroyo. He approached the motionless watchers as they waited. What else was there to do? He could not run; he had to get to higher ground. If they wished to kill him, they would have already done so – three riflemen vaguely silhouetted against the darkness against one injured man back-lit by the moon like a shooting gallery cut-out. He had no chance but to approach them, hoping they were not as menacing as their appearance suggested. Three black figures appearing out of the desert night, unmoving, unspeaking – Jake limped and stumbled on, nearing them, wondering where they had come from, what sort of men they could be, abroad in this desert wasteland, and above all what they wanted with him!
Because they obviously had business with him, or thought they did, since they waited, frozen in a menacing tableau along the dark ridge, neither calling out nor gesturing. Nor did they come to assist him as he struggled and scraped his way up the rocky hillside half-dragging his wounded right leg.
Jake Worthy considered – he had no known enemies in this vast wasteland, but neither did he have friends in the dry wilderness area. Whoever these watchers were they must have already formed their course of action, whatever that might be. With luck, Jake thought, in a gunfight he might be able to get one of them, possibly two, but warring with three riflemen in the darkness on unsteady ground was a dangerous proposition. There was no way Jake could hope to escape without at the very least finding himself badly perforated, if that was the intent of the bunch. He stumbled on, trusting to chance, for that was all there was to trust to.
He was within a dozen strides of them when a strangely familiar, reedy voice finally called out, 'We'd appreciate it if you'd drop your rifle for now, Worthy! And you can also unbuckle your gunbelt. No sense in taking any chances.'
No. There wasn't.
Instead of dropping it, Jake lowered his rifle to the rocky ground. He did not believe in mistreating his weapons, women or horses. Unbuckling his Colt, he placed it beside his Spencer repeater. One of the men came forward, his Winchester lifted in the area of Jake's stomach and leaned over to pick up the guns. Nearer now, Jake could see that the man did indeed have eyes. One of them had a strange cast to it, and both bulged like a frog's. He was stocky, his body seeming to be a little sloppy beneath the dirty clothes he wore.
'All right, Jake, let's get tracking,' the man with the voice that seemed almost familiar said, and the four of them began to climb the hillrise in silent unison, the frog-eyed man walking behind Jake Worthy, his rifle still leveled.
Topping out the rise, Jake looked down at the moon-illuminated valley beyond. A stone house, with wings stretching out on either side rested on a table of flat ground near the base of the rising cliff beyond. Someone had wanted his comfort out here on this naked land. Here and there you would stumble upon a sagging, weather-grayed shanty or a small stone cabin, but a house of this size was a true rarity in the White Mountain area. The windows, Jake noticed, were only rifle slits designed to hold off Indian attackers. The front yard was barren and dry, only a scraggly, undernourished oak tree growing there.
The four men dipped down into the shallow ravine and clambered up the other side to approach the house. One of them called out to let anyone inside know that they were arriving. If the person, whoever it was, manning the house had a nervous trigger finger, the sight of four shadows approaching the house from out of the night could set him off.
Instead, walking through utter silence, with only the sound of the men's boot leather whispering against the rough ground to be heard, they approached the front door as the moon rose higher, the night wind began to funnel down the mountain passes. Jake still had said nothing. He had no idea what these men's intentions were, but they seemed to have no interest in conversation just then. They were keeping him alive; there was no point in bringing him back to their den to kill him. There would be time for talking later, then.
One of Jake Worthy's abductors – or rescuers, depending on how you looked at it – rapped loudly on the heavy plank door and was answered from within by a muffled voice. The door swung wide and the four tramped in.
Excerpted from The Reluctant Gun Hand by Paul Lederer. Copyright © 2013 Logan Winters. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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