Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Lucy Squires Taggart gazed distastefully at her Texas Ranger husband while he dressed.
“Clay, please tell me you’re not going to wear that shirt,” she said.
“Why not? What’s wrong with this shirt?” Clay responded.
“It’s all faded and worn. The elbows are ready to wear through, and it’s been patched too much. And those old bloodstains. They’ll never wash out completely,” Lucy explained.
“What does it matter?” Clay protested as he snapped the shirt closed and tied a bandanna around his neck. “I’m gonna be on the trail for weeks. In two days it’ll be all dusty and sweat-stained anyway.”
“I don’t care. You’re not starting out wearing that shirt,” Lucy retorted. She rose from the bed and walked over to the bureau She opened a drawer to remove a clean, neatly folded shirt.
“Here. Wear this one,” she ordered.
“But I like this one,” Clay objected. “It’s already broken in and comfortable. And the renegades I’ll be after sure won’t care whether I’m wearin’ fancy duds.”
Lucy slid her hand inside the garment Clay had donned to unsnap the buttons. She slipped the old shirt from his shoulders, then ran her hand gently over his chest and belly. She lifted her lips to his for a long, lingering kiss.
“For me, please?” she whispered.
“Anything for you, darlin’,” Clay grinned. He took the fresh shirt and shrugged into it.
“Much better,” Lucy stated. “Now I’ll make breakfast while you feed Michael and wash up.”
“You mean Mike,” Clay answered.
“I mean Michael,” Lucy insisted. “And don’t try sneaking that ragged old shirt into your saddlebags.”
“All right,” Clay conceded.
Clay buckled his gunbelt around his lean hips. Lucy wrapped a robe over the thin nightgown she wore. The gown’s flimsy material and low cut revealed the fullness of her bosom, which even the heavier robe could not fully conceal. Clay’s gaze followed her appreciatively as she walked from the room.
“I’m still takin’ my favorite shirt,” he muttered, tucking the garment behind his gunbelt. He slipped out the front door and headed for the small barn. Mike, his black and white overo, whinnied a greeting from his corral.
“Howdy, pardner. You ready to ride, or are you just hungry?” Clay called to the horse. Mike nickered a response, then when his rider ducked under the fence buried his muzzle in Clay’s belly, causing the Ranger to grunt.
“Reckon you want a peppermint,” Clay chuckled when Mike nuzzled his hip pocket. “I’ve got one for you right here.”
He slipped the horse a candy, then filled his manger with oats and hay, adding fresh water to the bucket.
“Reckon you’re all set for now,” Clay noted. “Soon’s I put on the feedbag myself we’ll be headin’ out.”
By the time Clay finished caring for Mike and cleaning up, Lucy had breakfast on the table.
“You’re gonna make me fat, honey,” Clay warned, looking over the ham, bacon, eggs, hotcakes, and biscuits piled high on the table, along with a pot of steaming black coffee.
“I doubt that,” Lucy answered. “I know how little good food you get on the trail, so I’m filling you up now. Whatever’s left I’ll wrap so you can take it along.”
Husband and wife settled down to the meal, eating mostly in silence.
“Clay, isn’t there anything else you can tell me about your assignment?” Lucy asked while they were lingering over last cups of coffee.
“Not a thing. All I know is I’m heading for the Panhandle. The railroad’s having trouble up there. That’s the only thing Captain Morris told me. I’ll have him get word to you if he’s willing.”
“That’s all I can ask,” Lucy sighed. “You should be leaving.”
“Let me help you with the dishes,” Clay offered.
“I’ll take care of them. You shouldn’t keep the captain waiting,” Lucy answered. “And I have to get busy myself, or I’ll be late for school. I can’t keep the children waiting, or heaven knows what mischief they’ll get into.”
“I reckon you’re right,” Clay agreed. “Time I got movin’.”
Lucy packed the leftover breakfast while Clay retrieved his saddlebags, then they headed for the corral. Clay quickly saddled and bridled Mike.
Lucy stroked the big gelding’s nose, speaking softly to him.
“Michael, you make sure and bring Clay back safely to me,” she told the horse. “I’ve planted a big crop of carrots just for you.”
Mike whickered and nuzzled Lucy’s cheek.
“You’re gonna spoil him,” Clay warned.
“Oh like you don’t, with all those peppermints,” Lucy shot back.
“Guess I can’t deny that,” Clay conceded.
Clay took Lucy into his arms, holding her tightly. Their lips met, and they remained locked in their embrace for several minutes. Finally, Clay pulled himself away and swung into the saddle.
“Be careful, Clay,” Lucy warned.
“I promise you that,” Clay replied. He leaned from the saddle to give Lucy one more kiss, then heeled Mike into a trot.
“I know you’ve got that old shirt in your saddlebags, Clay Taggart,” Lucy called after him.
Clay turned in his saddle, smiled and waved in reply.
“Michael she calls you,” Clay exclaimed, patting the horse’s neck. He pushed the pinto into a lope. “And you fall for that, horse. Never would have guessed a pretty face would turn your head.”
Mike snorted explosively.
“I reckon you’re right,” Clay chortled. “I fell for that pretty face too.”
While he rode along, the Ranger reflected on the changes to his life in the two months since he’d met the pretty schoolmarm down in Uvalde. As she’d told him would happen, they had indeed gotten married. Lucy had come to Austin with him and found another teaching position. And now Clay, who had always been content with a bunk in the Ranger Headquarters barracks, had scraped together enough money for a down payment on that small house and barn in Manchaca, a tiny hamlet on the outskirts of Austin. Lucy’s feminine touch was evident throughout the house, with lace curtains at the windows, gingham covers on the bed, and flowers growing at the front door. Even Clay’s guns and Stetson were relegated to a corner in the kitchen.
Clay gave a rueful chuckle.
“Sun’s already up an hour, Mike. We’d best pick up the pace.”
He heeled Mike into a long-reaching gallop.
“Looks like we’re gonna have ridin’ pards this trip, Mike,” Clay remarked as he reined up in front of Ranger Headquarters, dismounted, and looped Mike’s reins over the hitchrail. He recognized the two mounts already nosing the rail, Dade French’s steeldust Spook, and Dusty, Jim Huggins’ long-legged chestnut.
Clay entered the building and strode down the hallway to Captain Joseph Morris’s office. Huggins and French were already seated. The captain looked up from behind his desk when Clay entered.
“See, boys, told you when a man gets married you just can’t count on him,” Morris joked.
“Reckon that means me too, Cap’n,” Jim Huggins laughed. The veteran sergeant was married, with a son and daughter.
“Don’t forget you’ve also got a wife, Cap’n,” Clay retorted.
“Don’t remind me,” Morris sighed. “Dade here’s the only one of us with sense enough not to get hitched.”
“Boy howdy, that’s for certain,” Dade agreed. He took a puff on his quirly. “No female’s gonna tie me down.”
“I wouldn’t bet a hat on it,” Clay chuckled.
“That’s enough discussion of the marital state,” Morris stated. “Clay, pour yourself a cup of coffee and pull up a chair.”
Clay took a mug from a shelf, lifted the battered coffeepot from the stove in the corner, and poured the mug brimful. He settled into a cane bottom chair.
Morris opened the manila file on his desk. He put on a pair of pince-nez spectacles to scan its contents, then leaned back in his chair. He lit his pipe and took a long pull, sending a blue smoke ring toward the ceiling.
“You boys are headin’ for the lower Panhandle. There’s a heap of trouble brewin’ up there.”
“What kind of trouble?” Dade asked.
“Indian trouble… and outlaw trouble. Is there any other kind?” Morris retorted.
“Women trouble,” Dade laughed.
“You’re not gonna have time to worry about that kind of trouble,” Morris assured him.
“I’m kinda surprised to hear talk of Indian trouble. The Comanch’ haven’t been a problem for quite some time,” Jim noted.
“Well, they’re raidin’ again from the reports I’ve gotten,” Morris explained. “But that’s not your main assignment. The Army’s still supposed to be takin’ care of those Comanches. You’ll just try’n round up any you might stumble across.”
“Then that leaves the outlaws,” Clay answered.
“It sure does. And you’ll have your hands full with them,” Morris snapped. He turned and pointed to the wall map behind him.
“You know folks are startin’ to settle up that way, and counties are bein’ organized. One of those is Scurry County. Its seat is a town called Snyder. But there’s no law to speak of in that whole region, so the settlers are pretty much at the mercy of any renegades preyin’ on ’em.”
“So you want us to round up those renegades and quiet things down,” Jim said.
“That, and more.”
Morris traced a line on the map with his finger.
“There’s a railroad building along this route. Plans are to extend the line into New Mexico then north to Denver. It’s called the Roscoe, Snyder, and Pacific, although I think the backers are bein’ real optimistic believin’ they’ll ever build all the way to California. I figure their road’ll end up bein’ absorbed by the Texas and Pacific before too long. But in the meantime, their trains are bein’ robbed on a regular basis. Their construction crews are bein’ attacked too, by both Comanches and renegade whites. Besides the settlers who’ve lost their lives, several railroaders have also been killed. The railroad’s asked for our help. I want you to stop those robberies and those attacks.”
“And any other Indians or desperadoes we might find,” Clay grinned. “Seems simple enough.”
“These things are never as easy as they look. You know that, Clay,” Morris chided.
“I reckon, Cap’n,” Clay agreed.
“That’s it?” Dade asked.
“That’s enough, ain’t it?” Morris retorted.
“Reckon it is. Let’s get ridin’,” Jim said. He and the others stood up.
“Vaya con Dios, men,” Morris said, “And watch your backs.”
“And our guts,” Dade replied. “I’m not overly fond of takin’ a slug, front or back.”
“I mean it. Be careful,” Morris insisted.
“Count on it,” Clay replied.
Morris stood at his window to watch the three men untie their horses, mount, and lope down Congress Avenue. Once they were out of sight, he turned back to his desk. He ran a hand through his graying hair, started for the stove, then changed his mind.
“I don’t need coffee. I need a drink,” he muttered. He opened the bottom drawer of his desk to pull out a bottle and glass.
Morris filled the tumbler, downed the contents, and refilled it. His frosty blue eyes took on a troubled expression. He gazed at the tumbler’s amber contents for a moment, then tossed them down.
“Wish I could be ridin’ with them,” he muttered. “I’ve got a feelin’ they’ll have their hands full. Sure hope they can handle whatever’s thrown their way.”
The three men riding out of Austin gave no outward sign of being Texas Rangers. Their garb was that of the common drifting cowpoke, faded shirts and jeans, bandannas, leather vests, scuffed boots, and sweat-stained Stetsons. Rangers wore no uniforms, and few wore badges, although Huggins, Taggart and French carried silver stars on silver circles they’d hand carved from Mexican ten peso coins in their shirt pockets, out of sight until needed.
Taggart was tall and lanky, with dark brown hair and eyes. French was slightly shorter than average, with a wiry build and swarthy complexion. With his jet black hair and eyes, he was often mistaken for a Mexican or half-breed Indian. He found that useful for undercover work, playing those roles to perfection. Huggins was the veteran of the trio. He also was tall and lean, his brown hair running to gray at the temples.
They set a steady pace on their northwestward run. With two hundred and fifty miles to their destination, it would take nearly a week of hard riding before they reached the lower Panhandle.
One day’s ride out of Roscoe they settled into the best campsite they’d found since leaving Austin, a grassy hollow alongside a small creek. Scattered boulders sheltered the hollow and blocked the steady wind. The tired men cared for their horses, ate a quick supper, then rolled in their blankets.
“Man, I can hardly wait to reach town so I can sleep in a hotel room and get some good chuck,” Dade commented.
“And a bath and shave,” Clay added.
“The horses could use a good grainin’ and rest too,” Huggins noted. “Now let’s get some rest.”
They were soon sleeping.
Sometime later, Clay was awakened by a sixth sense warning of danger. The usual stirrings of the night creatures were silent. He quietly slid his Colt from the holster alongside him, then glanced at his partners. Dade and Jim were also awake, staring into the darkness.
Clay could make out several vague figures slipping through the dark in their direction. Noiselessly they approached, wraithlike. Two were heading for the Rangers’ picketed horses.
“Comanches!” Clay hissed. He leveled his Colt at one nearing the horses and fired. The Comanche screamed, then collapsed with Clay’s bullet in his side.
Instantly the other warriors opened fire at the Rangers, some with rifles, the others showering arrows down on the camp. The Rangers returned fire, and three more of their attackers went down.
Dade grunted when an arrow tore along his ribs. His return shot knocked another Indian off his feet.
One of the braves climbed a boulder and leapt at Jim, a long-bladed knife in his hand. Jim whirled and fired, his bullet catching the Comanche in the belly while still in mid-air. The Comanche shrieked and crumpled to the dirt, writhing. Jim put a finishing shot into his chest.
As quickly as they had appeared, the Comanches retreated, fading into the night.
“You both all right?” Clay called.
“I’m fine,” Jim answered.
“Seem to be,” Dade responded. “Arrow scraped my side, but it ain’t much. Reckon they’ll be back?”
“I doubt it, but we’d better keep a close watch just in case,” Clay stated. “Meantime, let’s check these dead ones.”
Guns still at the ready, they examined the bodies. Jim whistled in surprise when he rolled the Comanche he’d shot onto his back.
“This ain’t a full-blooded Comanch’,” he exclaimed. “Look at his eyes. They’re blue.”
“Hair’s light for an Indian, too,” Dade added. “Looks like we might have some white men runnin’ with these renegades.”
“Else he’s a half-breed, or a white who was captured as a boy and’s been livin’ with the Comanches,” Clay noted. “Kinda like Quanah Parker, one of their great chiefs. His father was Indian, but his mother was a captured white woman.”
“You’re right,” Jim agreed, “But we don’t have to worry about these botherin’ anyone else.”
“What’re we gonna do with ’em?” Dade questioned.
Clay looked at the gray of the false dawn streaking the eastern horizon.
“It’s not that long to sunup,” he noted. “We’ll just leave ’em here. Their compadres’ll come back for them. Indians don’t like leavin’ their dead behind.”
“Makes sense,” Jim agreed. “But in case those others have revenge on their minds, I suggest we ride out now, before they come back with reinforcements.”
“Not a bad idea,” Clay agreed.
Moments later, their horses were saddled and the Rangers were back on the trail.
It was early the next evening when they reached Roscoe. For a Wednesday night the town was surprisingly busy. The road was filled with men and women, horses and wagons, the boardwalks packed shoulder to shoulder. Men jostled each other as they forced their way through the crowd.
One drunken railroader stumbled into Mike. Clay’s normally placid pinto pinned back his ears and bit the man’s shoulder, ripping away a chunk of flesh.
“Hey you, your horse…” The railroader started to challenge Mike’s rider, but wilted under Clay’s steady gaze. Muttering under his breath, he turned and melted back into the crowd.
“This town’s sure a rip-roarin’ place,” Dade noted. “Wonder why?”
“Dunno, but we’ll find out. There’s the deputy marshal’s office.”
Jim pointed to a makeshift office and jail a block away.
They rode up to the building, dismounted, and looped their horses’ reins over the rail. They stepped inside to find a young, harried-looking deputy.
“Don’t tell me you three have a complaint,” he muttered as they stepped through the door.
“Nope. We’re Texas Rangers,” Jim replied. “Sergeant Jim Huggins and Rangers Clay Taggart and Dade French.”
“Rangers! I’m sure glad to see you,” the deputy exclaimed. “I’m Pete Townsend. I’ve got my hands full, as you’ve probably guessed from that mob outside.”
“Seems a mite rowdy out there all right,” Clay noted. “What’s the big ruckus for?”
“The railroad’s finally got the trackbed finished from here to Snyder. So they’ve given all their workers the day off tomorrow to celebrate, and a bonus besides. Then they start layin’ rails the day after.”
“Looks like they’ve started a bit early,” Dade chuckled.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Townsend replied. “That’s why I’m glad for your help. You got here at the right time.”
“Well, I hate to disappoint you deputy,” Jim answered, “but we’re only stoppin’ here for the night, then headin’ toward Snyder in the morning. We’ll do what we can while we’re in town, but we’re after the renegades doin’ the killin’ and stealin’ in these parts, not drunk railroaders.”
“That’s not the news I wanted to hear,” Townsend complained. “But mebbe you can at least help me keep a lid on this town tonight.”
“We’ll be glad to,” Jim answered. “Soon as we get our broncs settled in and some grub in our bellies.”
“All right,” Townsend agreed. “Livery stable’s two blocks down on the left. Tell ol’ Zeke there I said the town’ll pay for puttin’ up your horses. Far as grub, head for the Kansas Café. It’s across from the livery. Best steaks within a hundred miles. The hotel’s right across the street. I’ll make sure they hold a room. You gonna want some drinks?”
“We could be talked into a few,” Dade grinned.
“Then once you’re done with supper head for the Gilded Lily, another block past the stable. I’ll meet you there in say, two hours.”
“That’ll be enough time for us to finish,” Clay answered. “See you then, deputy.”
They had finished their supper and were in the Gilded Lily Saloon nursing drinks when Townsend entered the barroom. Another man accompanied the deputy. They headed straight for the Rangers’ table.
“Rangers. Got a gentleman here been waitin’ for you to show up,” Townsend announced. “Jasper Wheeler. Chief construction superintendent of the Roscoe, Snyder, and Pacific Railroad. He just got back on the supply train. Mr. Wheeler, Rangers Huggins, Taggart, and French.”
“That’s Jim, Clay, and Dade,” Huggins replied. “We’re glad to meet you. Please, sit down.”
“The same. And make it Jasper,” the railroader responded. “Pete knows that. Don’t know why he’s bein’ so formal.”
He took a chair alongside Taggart.
“First time introduction,” the deputy shrugged. “Jasper’s got a proposition that might solve both our problems,” he added.
“What do you mean?” Clay asked.
“I’ll get to that in a minute,” Wheeler answered before the deputy could respond. “First, I need a drink. How about refills for you Rangers? And Pete?”
“I could stand a beer,” Townsend nodded.
“Another’d go down good,” Jim agreed.
“One more for me too,” Clay added.
“And another shot of rye here,” Dade concluded.
“Fine.” Wheeler signaled to the bartender. Once their drinks had been brought, he lit a cigar, leaned back in his chair, and explained Townsend’s statement.
“Pete says you men are heading for Snyder in the morning,” he began.
“That’s right,” Jim confirmed.
“There’s no need for that. Pete’s told you about the celebration we’ve planned for tomorrow.”
“He has,” Jim confirmed.
“There will be very few men in Snyder until the day after tomorrow. Since most of our supplies and crew’s quarters are still here in Roscoe, we’ve brought our crews back here, except for a few watchmen in Snyder. The day after tomorrow, several work trains will be headed back there. You Rangers can ride to Snyder in my private car. I’ll have a boxcar prepared for your horses. That way you can stay here and help Pete keep things under control.”
“You expectin’ that much trouble?” Clay asked.
“Not really, but the men have been working hard and have quite a bit of steam to blow off, so there are bound to be a few quarrels. I’d like your help in keeping those from getting out of hand. By staying and taking the train, you’ll be able to help out here and save a day’s riding. The train will get you to Snyder in a couple of hours, compared to a full day on horseback. So you’ll reach your destination early Friday morning rather than tomorrow night, which won’t make much difference as far as your assignment is concerned. What do you think?”
“It sounds reasonable,” Dade answered. “But the decision is the sergeant’s. How about it, Jim?”
“Seems like a good idea,” Huggins answered. “We’ll go along with it. Pete, you still need our help tonight?”
“I don’t think so,” the deputy answered. “Things are settlin’ down. The real shindig doesn’t start until tomorrow, and you boys have been ridin’ hard the past several days. I can handle any trouble tonight. You just take it easy until tomorrow.”
“Fine. We’ll be at your office at seven,” Jim stated.
“Then that’s settled,” Wheeler concluded. “Now, I have some final details to attend to, so I’ll take my leave. Any more refreshments you would like are on the Roscoe, Snyder, and Pacific. I’ll instruct Moses at the bar to that effect.”
“Not quite so fast,” Clay interrupted, “We need to ask you about the attacks on your men.”
“We’ll discuss that on the train,” Wheeler replied. “Until tomorrow, gentlemen. Good night.”
“I’ve got to make my rounds, so I’ll be leavin’ too,” Townsend added. “See you in the mornin’.”
After the railroader and deputy left, Clay, Jim, and Dade lingered over a few more drinks.
“I think I’m gonna sit in on that poker game,” Dade decided. “Either of you want to join me?”
“I might play a hand or two,” Jim agreed. “How about you, Clay?”
“I’ll skip it this time. I’m bushed,” Clay answered. “Think I’ll head back to our room and turn in.”
“Okay, we’ll see you in the morning,” Jim agreed.
“And we’ll try not to wake you when we come in,” Dade added. “G’night, Clay.”
“’Night, both of you.”
Clay headed across the street to the hotel, got the key to their room, and headed upstairs. Leaving the door unlocked for his partners, he undressed, then crawled under the blankets. He was asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.
All three men were up with the sun the next morning. Clay was at the washstand, shaving. Jim and Dade were still stretched out under the covers.
“How late’d you get in last night?” Clay asked.
“Not too late,” Jim answered. “Poker game broke up soon after you left. But we do have another friendly wager to settle.”
“Dade, you want to explain it?”
“Sure,” French agreed. “Clay, those railroaders started braggin’ last night about how tough they are, and how anyone of ’em could lick a Ranger in a standup fight. You know we couldn’t let that pass.”
“So which one of you fought?”
“Neither. That’s where you come into the picture.”
“What?” Clay turned and glared at his partners.
“You’re the best scrapper of the three of us,” Dade explained. “So we challenged their best fighter to a boxing match, you and him. It’s set for eleven this morning at the livery stable. One of the corrals will be used for a ring.”
“You’re both loco if you think I’m gettin’ beat to a pulp just so you can win a bet,” Clay snapped. “Either that or you had more red-eye than I realized. Forget it. If you want to brawl with one of those hombres, do it yourselves.”
“Clay, you have to fight. Think of the reputation of the Rangers,” Dade protested. “If you don’t go in that ring, we’ll be laughingstocks.”
“I’m thinkin’ of my hide,” Clay retorted.
“You’re not turnin’ yellow, are you?” Jim broke in. “Besides, the hombre who’s takin’ you on ain’t all that tough. You’ll win, easy.”
“You’re not givin’ me any choice, are you?” Clay grumbled.
“Reckon we’re not,” Jim admitted.
“But it’s easy money. Those railroaders have money to burn with those bonuses in their pockets. We’ll clean up,” Dade insisted.
With a sigh, Clay gave in.
“All right. But you’d better not be lyin’ about my chances.”
“Not at all,” Dade assured him.
“We’ll even buy breakfast,” Jim added. “But don’t eat too much, just in case you catch a punch in the gut. That wouldn’t be pretty.”
“Wonderful. The condemned man gets a last meal,” Clay muttered.
“Jim’s just joshin’. You’ve got nothin’ to worry about,” Dade replied.
“That’s what scares me,” Clay answered.
The next morning the Rangers and deputy made several patrols of Roscoe. So far things had been fairly uneventful, the deputy only having to break up one fight.
“The day’s still young. Once these railroaders have some more whiskey in their bellies things’ll heat up,” Townsend predicted. “And a lot of ’em are waitin’ for the fight.”
“It’s quarter to eleven. Reckon we’d better head for the stable,” Jim noted.
They started down the street.
“Sure glad I’m refereein’ this fight, not takin’ on Pat Doyle,” Townsend said.
“What do you mean, Pete?” Clay demanded.
“Just that…” Pete stopped when Jim and Dade glared at him. “Just that I…”
“Never mind. I get your drift. Dade, Jim, thought you said I’d have no problem.”
“You won’t,” Dade assured Clay. “Doyle’s a pushover. He won’t last five minutes against you.”
“Your pard’s right,” Pete agreed.
“I’m not buyin’ that,” Clay retorted.
“You’re not backin’ out, are you?” Jim asked.
“Reckon it’s too late,” Clay answered.
They turned down the alleyway to the stable.
“Looks like quite a crowd,” Jim remarked. The makeshift ring was surrounded by spectators.
“Here comes the Rangers!” one of them shouted. They crowd parted to allow Clay and his partners access to the corral.
Patrick Doyle was already in the ring. The Irishman had jet black hair and bright blue eyes. He was taller than Taggart by a good three inches, and outweighed the Ranger by at least twenty pounds. Doyle had already peeled off his shirt. His arms, shoulder, and chest bulged with thick muscles developed by years of laying track for the railroads. His body had not an ounce of fat.
“That’s who I’m fightin’?” Clay exclaimed.
“That’s him,” Dade confirmed.
“Only way I’ll beat that hombre is with a ten gauge shotgun.”
“He’s not that big,” Jim answered.
“For a live oak,” Clay retorted. He ducked into the corral, unbuckled his gunbelt and pulled off his shirt, bandanna, and Stetson, then handed them to Huggins.
The spectators, seeing the two men together for the first time, began betting heavily on the railroader.
Pete Townsend called both fighters to the center of the corral.
“Men, there won’t be any rounds. You’ll just box until one of you is knocked out or quits,” he explained. “The rules are simple. No kicking, gouging, biting, or hitting below the belt. Good luck.”
He backed from between the pair.
Clay and Doyle circled warily for a few moments, each sizing up his opponent. Doyle threw the first punch, a jab to Clay’s chin. Clay ducked under the blow and shot a hook to Doyle’s stomach. The railroader barely flinched at the impact.
Clay landed a left to Doyle’s jaw, then Doyle sank his fist deep into the Ranger’s belly. All the air was driven from Clay’s lungs, his guts feeling as if they’d been turned inside out. He jackknifed into a powerful right to his chin. The blow straightened him up, and Doyle slammed another huge fist into Clay’s belly. Clay folded to the dirt, then rolled onto his back.
His head roaring, gasping for breath, Clay was vaguely aware of Townsend as the deputy began the ten count. He lay there helpless against the pain, fighting to draw air into his lungs. When Townsend reached “seven”, Clay managed to roll onto his stomach, pushed himself to his hands and knees, and forced himself upright just before Townsend reached “ten”.
Doyle came at Clay again, aiming another left at the Ranger’s head. Clay managed to avoid the punch and landed one of his own, a right that opened a cut over the railroader’s left eye. Before Doyle could recover, Clay landed another blow to his right eye, which quickly swelled shut.
Doyle smashed a left into Clay’s chest, staggering him. Clay countered with a hook to Doyle’s ribs. Infuriated, Doyle swung wildly at Clay’s head, missing when Clay ducked under his huge fist.
Both men stood toe to toe, hammering each other unmercifully. Doyle was half-blinded by his closed left eye and the blood flowing into his left. Clay was bleeding heavily from a slice one of Doyle’s punches had opened along his right cheekbone.
Doyle landed another hard punch to Clay’s midsection, a left hook which sank wrist-deep into the Ranger’s belly. The impact folded Clay over Doyle’s fist and lifted him a foot into the air. Somehow he managed to stagger backwards from the railroader’s following blow.
Doyle closed in to finish Clay off. Clay ducked under a punch which would have taken his head half-off, to land several short, vicious jabs to Doyle’s gut. The blows had their effect on the tiring railroader. He grunted with pain and began to jackknife.
Clay took one step back and, with the last of his strength, launched a wicked uppercut at Doyle’s chin. The punch took Doyle in the soft tissue behind the jawbone, where throat and chin met. Doyle gagged, fought for air that wasn’t there, and toppled backwards, eyes glazing. He crashed to the dirt and lay unmoving.
Clay staggered to the fence and draped his arms over the top rail. He stood, chest heaving, while Townsend counted over Doyle. Once he reached ten, Townsend hurried to Clay to lift his left arm in victory.
“The winner by a knockout! Ranger Clay Taggart!”
The spectators reacted with cheers for the victor and moans for their lost money. Dade and Jim rushed into the ring to join their partner.
“Told you that you’d beat him,” Dade crowed.
“Yeah, that was some fight,” Jim agreed. “And we sure cleaned up, thanks to you, pardner.”
“What are you gonna do now, Clay?” Dade questioned.
“Soon as Doyle comes to, I’m gonna buy him a drink,” Clay answered. “He’s earned it.”
“You don’t look all the worse for wear, Clay, considering that was one of the toughest boxing matches I’ve ever seen,” Jasper Wheeler noted when the Rangers boarded his private car the next morning. They settled into plush green velvet chairs.
“Thanks.” Clay attempted a grin that was more of a lopsided grimace. “It helped your men didn’t stir things up too much last night.”
Despite Pete Townsend’s dire predictions, the railroaders’ celebration, while rowdy, had only been marred by a few minor altercations.
“I warned them to stay in line,” Wheeler replied.
“It worked,” Dade laughed.]
The locomotive’s whistle blew and the train lurched into motion.
“We’ll be having breakfast shortly. After that you can ask me all the questions you wish,” Wheeler noted.
The Rangers enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast while the train rolled along. After they were finished and lingering over cups of thick black coffee, Dade and Wheeler puffing on cigars, the superintendent finally allowed them to question him.
“Do you have any idea who’s behind the attacks on the railroad?” Jim asked.
“Not a clue,” Wheeler admitted. “Everyone seems to be in favor of the line, and the progress and prosperity it will bring to this entire region. We hope eventually to extend our tracks all the way to Denver.”
“Well, someone sure wants to try and stop you,” Clay replied.
“Perhaps not. Don’t forget settlers and others have also been robbed or murdered,” Wheeler pointed out. “We may just be victims of those same gangs.”
“I don’t think so. Not from the information Captain Morris provided,” Jim disagreed.
“Jim’s right. There’s been too many attacks on your crews,” Dade noted. “What have you done about that?”
“What we can, which isn’t adequate,” Wheeler admitted. “My men are railroaders, not fighters. I have Patrick Doyle, the man Clay fought yesterday, in charge of defending the crews, but he’s not a rifleman. None of us are. That’s why I’m counting on you Rangers.”
“And we’ll do everything we can to protect your men and get to the bottom of this,” Clay responded.
“Sure would be great if we had an idea where to start, however,” Jim added.
“I’m sure you’ll solve this dilemma,” Wheeler replied. “In the meantime, why don’t you just relax and enjoy your ride. We’ll be in Snyder in ninety minutes or so. We’re still running the trains more slowly than we will once all the detail work is finished.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Clay noted. He stretched out his legs and tilted his Stetson over his battered face.
Clay and his partners dozed for a bit. About an hour later, Clay awakened and glanced out his window. A stagecoach was racing at breakneck speed on the road paralleling the tracks. The driver was whipping his team, urging them to even greater speed.
“Jim. Dade. Look out there.”
He pointed to the coach.
“What’s that fool doing?” Dade questioned.
“Looks like the idiot’s trying to outrun this train,” Clay answered.
“There’s a crossing about a mile ahead,” Jasper Wheeler observed. “It appears that driver is trying to beat us there.”
“He should be shot for abusin’ those horses like that,” Jim said. “When he rolls into Snyder I’m gonna have a long discussion with him.”
“If he reaches that crossing at the same time as this train there won’t be anything of him left to talk with,” Clay rejoined.
They watched with growing trepidation while the stagecoach hurtled alongside the train, the jehu ignoring the engineer’s frantic blasts of the whistle.
“He’s gonna kill himself and anyone on that stage,” Clay muttered.
“Darn fool,” Dade added.
The train rumbled over the crossing just ahead of the stage. The coach’s driver pulled back hard on the reins and brake, causing the leaders to rear. They stopped just before crashing into the tender.
“I’m not gonna talk to him. I’m gonna pound some sense into him,” Jim snapped. “And make sure he loses his job.”
“And I’ll finish what you start,” Clay added.
“That won’t be a problem much longer,” Wheeler observed. “Once we start regular service, the stage will be out of business. We have offered their workers employment with the railroad, but I don’t believe that gentleman is suitable.”
“I’d agree with you,” Clay answered. “Endangering folks like that. Jasper, how much longer until we reach Snyder?”
“About thirty minutes,” Wheeler replied. “And I’ve already sent word ahead to reserve a room for you and stalls for your horses. You’ll be settled in no time.”
“We appreciate that,” Jim answered. “But we’ll need to make a stop about five miles before town.”
“Oh? Why?” Wheeler asked.
“We’re gonna drop off Dade and his horse. He’s gonna head out and do some pokin’ around on his own.”
“That’s right. I’m now Kiowa Dave, half-breed renegade,” Dade grinned.
“Dade’s real good at playin’ a half-breed or Mexican,” Clay explained. “That way, he can find out information a Ranger never could.”
“I understand,” Wheeler answered.
A half hour before reaching Snyder the train ground to a halt. Dade descended from the coach and retrieved Spook from the boxcar. He disappeared into the brush.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. Once the train pulled into Snyder, Clay and Jim unloaded their horses and left them at the stable. They settled in chairs in front of the newly-built hotel to await the stage’s arrival.
Jim and Clay never did get the chance to confront the stage driver about his reckless conduct. When the coach’s team stopped just short of crashing into the train, the shotgun guard, infuriated at the driver’s endangering the lives of everyone on board, had grabbed the reins from the driver’s hands and sent him flying from the seat with an oath and a well-placed kick to his rump, along with a firm warning to never show his face in town. The guard then completed the run to Snyder.
Not knowing when or where the renegades might strike next, the Rangers decided on a random pattern of accompanying the track crews, alternating with patrolling the area.
“What about your partner?” Wheeler asked as they prepared to depart Snyder.
“Don’t worry about Dade,” Clay assured him. “He’ll find us when he needs to.”
“All right. Good luck. And be careful,” Wheeler urged.
“We will. See you in a few days,” Jim answered.
Two days after leaving town, they came across the hoofprints of several horses, both shod and unshod.
“What d’ya think, Clay?” Jim asked.
Clay dismounted and studied the tracks.
“I’d say either we’ve got a bunch of renegades, Indian and white, or else some Comanches who’ve been raidin’ and stealin’ horses,” he answered. “Either way it’s trouble.”
“Looks to me like they’re not all that far ahead of us,” Jim noted. “Let’s see if we can catch up to ’em.”
Clay climbed back into the saddle. They pushed their horses into a hard gallop.
Two miles later, they topped a rise to see their quarry surrounding a small ranch. They were keeping up a steady volley of gunshots. Several men were lying dead in the yard, while from the house others were returning the invaders’ gunfire.
“Let’s even up the odds a bit,” Jim said.
“All right,” Clay agreed.
They pulled their Winchesters from their scabbards and urged their horses down the hill at a dead run.
They pulled in their horses halfway down the hill and opened fire, raking the raiders with a hail of lead. Three of them were knocked from their saddles with Ranger lead in their backs. Others turned to meet the unexpected threat, only to fall with bullets in their chests.
Another rider burst from the scrub, adding his own accurate shooting to that of the Rangers. He put a bullet through the belly of a renegade who had drawn a bead on Clay’s stomach, just as he pulled the trigger. His aim spoiled by the slug’s impact, the outlaw’s shot went wide.
Completely rattled by the unexpected attack from behind, the remaining outlaws whirled their horses and ran. Two of the survivors returned the Rangers’ fire, only to be cut down. The rest disappeared into the thick brush.
“Leave ’em go,” Jim ordered, “They could pick us off one by one real easy in those thickets. “Let’s check on the folks inside.”
Their unexpected ally reined up alongside them.
“Bet you’re surprised to see me,” Dade French grinned
“You might say that,” Jim drawled. “Where the devil did you come from?”
“And where in blue blazes did you get that outfit you’re wearin’?” Clay demanded. “You’re dang lucky one of us didn’t plug you.”
Their Ranger partner was clad in buckskin leggings and moccasins, his upper torso covered only by an open leather vest. A battered U.S. Army campaign hat with an eagle feather in the band was perched on his head, while he carried a bow and quiver slung over one shoulder.
“We’d better explain ourselves to these ranchers first,” Jim observed. “They’ll still be a mite jumpy.”
With the shooting stopped, several men had emerged from the house. They had their guns trained on the threesome.
“Appreciate the help, but you hombres mind statin’ your business?” one of them called.
“We’re Texas Rangers,” Clay answered. “Came across the tracks of those renegades and followed ’em. Seems like we caught up with ’em in the nick of time.”
“I reckon you did,” the rancher replied. “You fellas saved our bacon, that’s for certain. I’m Bob Harte. My boys, Beau and Brent. My wife Ellie and daughter Sally are inside.”
“Sergeant Jim Huggins, Rangers Clay Taggart and Dade French,” Jim responded.
“Glad you came along. But mister, you sure don’t look like any Ranger,” Harte challenged Dade.
“I’ll explain once we take care of things out here,” Dade answered.
“Once the wounded are inside, we’ll help you bury the dead,” Jim added.
Clay rolled over one of the dead raiders.
“Seems like we’ve got another mixed bunch. Indian and white,” he noted.
“Looks that way,” Jim agreed. “Let’s get to work.”
“All right. Lemme introduce you to the rest of my men,” Harte replied.
The introductions were completed, the wounded cared for. The dead cowboys from the Triangle H were buried in carefully dug graves, the dead outlaws dumped into a common pit, but prayers said over all.
The Rangers turned their horses into a corral, then washed up. Dade changed back into his usual trail garb. They headed inside to join the Harte family and their surviving men for supper.
Mrs. Harte and her daughter had set a table overflowing with beefsteaks, potatoes, vegetables, bread, butter, and plenty of hot coffee. They refused to allow any discussion until everyone had eaten their fill.
After the meal, they settled in the parlor with final cups of coffee, most of the men smoking.
“All right, Dade. You’ve stalled long enough. Explain those Indian duds,” Jim demanded.
“Sure,” Dade agreed. “I was sleepin’ a couple nights back when a big Comanche warrior jumped me. He nearly got my scalp, but I managed to stick my knife between his ribs. I was gettin’ ready to roll his body into a ravine when I decided I could dress in his clothes. They make me look even more like a half-breed. Figured I might have a better chance of stumblin’ across some of the hombres we’re after ridin’ around like a part Indian, part white man. So I stripped off my clothes, stuck ’em in my saddlebags, and put on that Indian’s outfit.”
“How’d you find us?” Clay asked.
“Pure dumb luck,” Dade replied. “I came across the tracks of those renegades’ horses, same ones you were followin’. Just fortunate timing to be in the same place at the same time.”
“We’d better explain things to the Hartes,” Clay noted.
“We are a mite puzzled,” Bob admitted.
“We’ve been assigned to track down the hombres attacking the railroad’s crews building the line to Snyder,” Clay explained. “And to take care of any other renegades we come across.”
“I decided to have Dade work incognito,” Jim took up the narrative, “since he can pass as a half-breed or Mexican real easy. He’s done that many times. So we’d split up, and Dade’s been pokin’ around on his own. Guess it was just coincidence we all arrived here just about the same time.”
“A very fortunate coincidence,” Sally Harte added. She was gazing unabashedly at the darkly handsome French.
“You really look much better in your regular clothes, sir,” she noted.
“Why, thank you, ma’am. And it’s Dade.”
“Bob, would any of you have an idea who might be tryin’ to stop the railroad, or why?” Jim asked the rancher.
“Not a clue,” Harte admitted.
“Everyone’s real pleased at the idea of the line goin’ through,” Brent added.
“My brother’s right,” Beau concurred. “It’ll make shippin’ our cattle a lot easier, just havin’ to drive ’em to a railhead in Snyder, plus gettin’ supplies should be faster and cheaper.”
“And we’ll be able to travel without having to depend on the stage line,” Ellie added.
“Everyone around here feels that way?” Clay asked.
“Everyone we know,” Bob confirmed.
“Well, someone’s sure tryin’ to shut down the railroad,” Dade answered. “Now all we have to do is figure out who.”
“You can’t do much about that tonight,” Bob replied. “So why don’t you Rangers stay here until mornin’?”
“Sounds reasonable,” Jim answered. “We’ll just spread our blankets in the bunkhouse, if that’s agreeable.”
“It sure is,” Bob said. “You’ll get a good night’s sleep, and a good breakfast before you ride out.”
Clay yawned and stretched.
“Speakin’ of sleep, I’m ready for some.”
“Reckon we all are. Let’s call it a night,” Jim answered.
The next couple of weeks were fairly uneventful, at least as far at the Rangers were concerned. The railroad’s tracks pushed steadily northwestward, with no incidents. Dade French continued his solitary undercover surveillance, occasionally bringing in a renegade he’d found and arrested. Clay and Jim also made several arrests during their patrols.
Clay and Jim were eating supper with most of the crew when Jasper Wheeler came into the mess tent. The construction superintendent filled a plate with buffalo steak, potatoes, and beans. He added a cup of coffee, placed this on a tray along with his meal, and sat beside the two Rangers.
“I appreciate the fine job you Rangers have been doin’,” he remarked. “Things sure have quieted down.”
“You haven’t finished the line yet,” Clay noted.
“True. But we’re nearing the finish,” Wheeler answered. “By the way, where’s your partner?”
“Dade? He’s out there somewhere, keepin’ his eyes peeled,” Huggins replied. “He’ll be around if we need him.”
“Good. With you men’s help, we’ve been layin’ track real fast. We’re even a little ahead of schedule,” Wheeler said. “In a few days we’ve got the big chore ahead of us.”
“What do you mean?” Clay asked.
“We’ll be pushin’ through a big canyon. We’ve had to do a lot of leveling of the terrain, but we’re finally done. We’ll start placin’ tracks there shortly.”
“A canyon?” Huggins asked. “How wide? And how high are the sides?”
“It’s not very wide at all,” Wheeler answered. “Enough room for two sets of tracks, although right now we’re only laying one. And anywhere from ten to fifty feet to spare on either side. I’d say the canyon walls are eighty to two hundred feet over the railbed.”
“Then it’s a perfect place for an ambush,” Huggins noted.
“Or to blow up the walls and block the rails entirely,” Clay added.
“Dang! I never thought of that,” Wheeler exclaimed. “But you’re both absolutely right.”
“I reckon we’d best ride out in the morning to check that canyon out,” Clay said.
“And we’ll have to contact Dade, too,” said Huggins. “How far ahead is the place, Jasper?”
“About seven miles,” Wheeler answered.
“Good. We’ll head there at first light,” Huggins said.
“What should we do?” Wheeler questioned.
“Just keep on workin’,” Clay replied, “But keep a sharp watch.”
“You can count on that,” Wheeler assured him.
By the time the sun was just clearing the eastern horizon the next dawn, Clay and Jim were already in the saddle, and heading for the canyon. They took their time, letting the horses set their own pace while the two Rangers studied the surrounding terrain. A bit more than two hours later, they were entering the rocky defile. Even though they weren’t expecting any trouble at this point, their skin crawled, and the napes of their necks prickled, the hair standing on end when they entered the shadowy floor. The beetling cliffs on either side seemed to close in on them. Even their normally unflappable horses were nervous, prancing and snorting their displeasure.
“This sure is the perfect spot for an ambush, Jim,” Clay noted. “A few men up on those cliffs could pick off just about the entire crew.”
“Worse. A few sticks of dynamite in the right spot could send the entire shebang crashing down,” Jim answered.
“Let’s find a way to the top and take a look around up there,” Clay suggested.
“That’s a good idea,” Jim agreed. They put their horses into a walk, while they searched for a trail which would lead them out of the canyon.
Three-quarters of a mile later, they found the spot they were seeking.
“What d’ya think, Jim?” Clay asked.
“It looks like a trail, but not much of one,” Jim answered. “Let’s give it a try.” Jim urged a reluctant Dusty onto the narrow path. Clay and Mike followed close behind.
The trail hugged the base of the cliff for some distance, then began a steep upward climb. In some spots the horses had to struggle to keep their footing on loose shale. In several places the trail doubled back on itself, switchbacking along the cliff face. By the time the Rangers were halfway up the cliff, the trail was barely wide enough for their horses to plant all four hooves.
“You reckon we made a mistake, Jim?” Clay asked, as they rested their horses for a short breather.
“Dunno, but there’s no turnin’ back,” Jim replied. “Only way to go is up.”
And up they did go, for another hour, before the trail finally emerged onto a level shelf. A short climb later, they stopped on a flat tableland.
“I don’t mind tellin’ you, I never figured we’d get outta that spot in one piece,” Clay said.
“Me neither,” Jim agreed. “I thought sure we’d be lyin’ in a million little pieces at the bottom of that slope. Let’s rest a spell before we poke around up here.”
Jim and Clay rode over to a small clump of redberry junipers. Jim rode Dusty to one of the trees to tie him, then unsaddle. Just as he swung off the horse, an arrow whistled past, and buried itself in a juniper trunk, just above his head. Jim grabbed his Winchester from its scabbard and dove to his belly. Close behind him, Clay did the same, diving behind a cluster of low rocks. Both men scanned the terrain, searching for the Indian who’d shot that arrow.
Raucous laughter came from behind a downed cottonwood log.
“Boy howdy, if I were a real Comanche you two hombres would have my arrows in your guts, and I’d be scalpin’ you right about now. You’re gettin’ mighty careless.”
Dade French appeared from behind the log, bow in hand. He was still clad in the moccasins, leggings, vest, and cavalry hat he’d taken from the dead Comanche.
“French, you no-good…” Clay began. “Where’d you come from?”
“Over yonder”. Dade waved toward the horizon. “Been doin’ some scoutin’. What about you two?”
“Checkin’ out this canyon for ambush sites. The railroad’s gonna be pushin’ through here in a few days,” Jim answered. “We figure whoever’s tryin’ to stop the line will hit it somewhere in this spot.”
Dade pulled his arrow from the juniper trunk.
“You’re figurin’ right,” he answered. “I’ve been trackin’ a bunch of men for the last few days. They’ve been followin’ the track-layin’ crews. Day before yesterday, they met up with some others. They’re about five or six miles east of here. And they sure look like they’re up to no good. You’ll never guess who was with ’em.”
“Who?” Clay asked.
“That stagecoach driver who nearly ran his coach into the train,” Dade answered. “And that’s not all. Dale Montague, the owner of the stage line’s also with him. Looks like Montague’s the one behind all this trouble.”
“That makes sense,” Jim agreed. “Once the railroad goes through the stage line’ll be out of business. I guess Montague doesn’t realize there’s no way he’d ever stop progress. Sooner or later a railroad’s bound to be built through here. If not this one, then another.”
“Then we’d better stop him” Dade said.
“That’s not as easy as it sounds,” Clay responded. “We’ve got no proof against Montague, or anyone else, for that matter.”
“Then what’s our next step?” Dade questioned.
“We’re gonna have to let ’em pull off their ambush,” Jim answered. “And be ready for ’em when they do.”
“Then we’ve got to make plans, and quick.” Dade said.
Clay glanced up at the sun.
“It’s just about noon,” he said. “Why don’t we have come chuck? We can work on what needs doin’ while we chow down.”
“Makes sense,” Jim agreed.
“I still don’t like the way we’ve gotta handle this, one bit,” Jasper Wheeler protested three mornings later. He, Clay, and Jim were in his private car, which was coupled to the end of a string of flat cars holding rails and ties. The locomotive pulling the work train was edging slowly into the canyon, as the track crew laid rail as quickly as possible.
“We’re not exactly thrilled with bein’ sittin’ ducks either, Jasper, but we’ve got no choice,” Clay answered.
“Clay’s right,” Jim concurred. “Like we told you, those hombres have been watchin’ us all along. They’re pretty clever to be able to do that without me or Clay spottin’ ’em. So if they’re that smart they’d know for sure something was up if they didn’t see us with the crews, or if a whole bunch of your men suddenly turned up missin’. No, we’ve got to lure ’em into a trap. And with Dade and Pat Doyle comin’ up behind ’em, that should be enough of a surprise to rattle ’em good. We should make out all right.”
“I hope you’re right, Sergeant,” Wheeler answered. “If not, I’ll be filing a formal complaint with Austin.”
“If I’m not, we’ll most likely be dead,” Jim chuckled.
“We’d better get ready, Jim,” Clay said.
“Reckon you’re right,” Jim agreed. “Jasper, by the end of the day, you’ll either have your railroad through this canyon, or it’ll be buried under tons of rock.”
“That’s encouraging,” Wheeler sarcastically answered.
Clay and Jim headed outside. They retrieved their horses from the care of a trackman, mounted, and began patrolling the right of way. For two hours, nothing happened… until a crackle of rifle fire marked the beginning of the ambush. Three trackmen fell dead under the first volley of lead.
“Let ‘em have it!” Clay shouted. He and Jim unshipped their rifles and rode with reckless abandon straight for the cliff. At the same time, a score of railroaders rose from where they’d laid hidden, behind the rails on the flatcars, and returned the drygulchers’ fire. From Wheeler’s car, the sharp crack of a Winchester carbine indicated the superintendent had joined the fray.
Under the cover of the railroaders’ fire, which was far more volume than accuracy, the two Rangers drew closer to the cliff base. They dove from their horses into the jumbled rocks at the bottom of the talus. From there they could still see and fire back at the ambushers above, and had the rocks for cover.
“Looks like the trackmen managed to pick off a few of ’em,” Clay shouted, seeing several bodies sprawled on ledges overhead.
“Yeah, but that was pure luck,” Jim shouted back. “I’ll take it, though.” He levered his rifle and fired at a figure above. His bullet tore through a gunman’s belly. The man screamed in terror as he grabbed his middle and jackknifed over the cliff. He landed five feet from Clay.
“Jim, I sure don’t want to get killed by one of those hombres you drop,” Clay chuckled. A bullet drove chips from the rock just in front of him.
“You don’t keep your head down you won’t have to worry about that. A slug’ll take care of you,” Jim retorted. He fired again, and another raider died with Ranger lead in his chest.
“We’d both better hope Dade and Pat Boyle get their job done, or neither one of us is liable to get outta this fix,” Clay shot back. He fired, and another raider tumbled over the edge of the cliff, with Clay’s bullet in his stomach.
For what seemed an eternity, but in reality was less than thirty minutes, the gun battle raged. With both the Rangers and railroaders, and the outlaws, in good cover it was hard for either side to gain much advantage. And after the first casualties, men were more cautious about coming from behind their shelter and exposing themselves to sudden lead death. While Clay, Jim, and the railroaders kept the raiders busy, Dade French and Patrick Doyle had their own hands full. They had come in from behind the raiders, catching them by surprise. Several of their targets were dead or wounded, with the rest dug in atop the cliff.
“Whatever we do, Pat, we can’t let anyone get to that plunger box!” Dade ordered. The outlaw band led by stage line owner Dale Montague had rigged the cliff with dynamite. They had lain in wait until the train entered the canyon, intending to explode the ledge and send tons of rock cascading onto the tracks and men below. Only Dade’s and Pat’s timely appearance had kept their plan from succeeding.
“Don’t worry about that,” Doyle called back. He aimed at a man drawing a bead on one of the fighters below, and fired. “Got him!” Doyle shouted triumphantly. His bullet struck the outlaw in the neck, breaking it.
Slowly the tide turned, the outnumbered Rangers and railroaders more than making up for their lack of manpower with their superior shooting. Suddenly, one of the men dashed for the plunger box. Dade sent several rounds at the zigzagging figure. One of them clipped the top of the man’s shoulder. He stumbled from the impact, fell and rolled, then came back to his feet. Before Dade could shoot again, the man was atg the plunger.
“That’s Dale Montague!” Doyle hissed.
Dade rose to his knees from behind his cover.
“Montague! This is the Texas Rangers. Don’t touch that handle. I’ve got my rifle aimed smack at your belly!”
“You pull that trigger and I’ll blow all your friends to Kingdom Come,” Montague screamed.
“I’m warnin’ you, don’t do it!” Dade repeated his warning.
Montague grabbed the plunger’s handles. When he did, Dade shot him through the belly, twice. Montague doubled up, and slumped over the box, pushing down the handle and completing the circuit. Dade and Doyle ducked behind their rock shelter as a good chunk of earth and ledge went up in a tremendous explosion, shards of rock raining everywhere.
The thunderous explosion was followed by a silence almost as deafening. Dade and Doyle slowly rose from their shelter, shaking rock dust from their clothing. Where Montague had stood was now a giant crater. Besides the stage line owner, several of his men had been blasted to oblivion. Others lay dead, while a few survivors, stunned, were struggling to their feet.
“Well, you warned Montague not to touch that plunger, Dade,” Doyle noted.
“Yeah. He should’ve listened,” Dade replied. “Well, let’s round up these hombres, then check on Clay and Jim.”
Once they had rounded up and secured the few surviving outlaws, Dade and Doyle scrambled down the cliff to the canyon floor. They found Clay, Jim, and the rest of the railroad crew awaiting them. Two of the railroaders had been killed by gunfire, and several wounded. Clay sported a bandage across his forehead, where he’d been grazed by an outlaw’s slug.
“You boys all right?” Jim called.
“Yeah, Sarge, we’re fine,” Dade responded. “How about you?”
“Clay stuck his head in front of a bullet,” Jim answered. “Luckily the slug hit him in his thick skull, so there was no damage.”
“Thanks a lot, Jim,” Clay muttered.
“I still don’t understand what happened,” Jasper Wheeler said, looking up at the smoke still curling from the cliff top.
“Pretty simple, really,” Clay explained. “Dade did a little night work. He moved the dynamite while no one was lookin’. Lucky for us Montague and his men didn’t expect anyone would find their little surprise. They were so confident they weren’t being watched they didn’t guard the explosives after they planted them. Instead, they backed off and waited until the tracks got close. Pretty stupid on their parts, and pretty fortunate for us.”
“I’d say a bit more than ‘pretty’ fortunate,” Wheeler answered. “But why didn’t you tell me?”
“We had to make sure of absolute secrecy,” Jim replied. “Even though we knew you could be trusted, you never know who might overhear something. Then someone gets drunk in a saloon in town, lets something slip, and the next thing you know our plans get shot to pieces… not to mention our hides.”
“And no one bothered Dade?”
“That’s one reason I kept wearin’ this outfit,” Dade answered. He was still in the same moccasins, leggings, open vest, and cavalry hat. “I figured no one’s bother a crazy half-breed wanderin’ around. I even talked with a couple of Montague’s men. Conned ’em out of a bottle of whiskey. They never suspected a thing.”
“Well, now it’s high time you got out of those duds,” Jim noted.
“Soon as we take care of the details,” Dade answered.
“Well, we’re certainly grateful for the Rangers’ help,” Wheeler said. “What are your plans now?”
“We’ll stick with you another week or so, just to make sure there’s no further trouble,” Clay answered. “Then we’rsquo;ll head home.”
“Fine. Well, I guess we won’t do anything more today,” Wheeler decided. “Whenever you’re ready, you boys are welcome to bunk in my car. There’s plenty of room.”
“We’ll take you up on that, just as soon as we wrap things up,” Jim replied.
The wounded were tended to, the prisoners locked in a cattle car. While the railroaders rounded up the outlaws’ horses and buried the dead, the Rangers slept. They would sleep the clock around.