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THE HUNTER BECOMES THE HUNTED
Tone woke to darkness, all of his senses suddenly alert. He rose, and on cat feet pulled on his nightshirt, then stepped into the shadows to the left of the window. Outside, the fog was thick and there was little light in the room. Fighting to control his rapid breathing, he raised the Colt and waited.
The door crashed into the room with such force, it was torn from its hinges.
On the bed, the woman shrieked.
Tone saw a bulky body directly in front of him. The man fired into the bed, fired again. The woman screamed louder.
Tone had waited to see how many assailants he was facing. There were two of them.
He fired at the man who’d shot into the bed. He heard a grunt and the huge body turned toward him. The man fired and the bullet crashed into the wall a few inches from Tone’s head. Tone blasted another shot at his assailant and the man staggered back, slamming into his companion. The second would-be assassin made an attempt to get to the doorway, but Tone shot twice, very fast, and the man went right on through, then tumbled down the stairs, slamming and crashing his way to the bottom.
THE IMMORTAL COWBOY
This is respectfully dedicated to the “American Cowboy.” His was the saga sparked by the turmoil that followed the Civil War, and the passing of more than a century has by no means diminished the flame.
True, the old days and the old ways are but treasured memories, and the old trails have grown dim with the ravages of time, but the spirit of the cowboy lives on.
In my travels—to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona—I always find something that reminds me of the Old West. While I am walking these plains and mountains for the first time, there is this feeling that a part of me is eternal, that I have known these old trails before. I believe it is the undying spirit of the frontier calling, allowing me, through the mind’s eye, to step back into time. What is the appeal of the Old West of the American frontier?
It has been epitomized by some as the dark and bloody period in American history. Its heroes—Crockett, Bowie, Hickok, Earp—have been reviled and criticized. Yet the Old West lives on, larger than life.
It has become a symbol of freedom, when there was always another mountain to climb and another river to cross; when a dispute between two men was settled not with expensive lawyers, but with fists, knives, or guns. Barbaric? Maybe. But some things never change. When the cowboy rode into the pages of American history, he left behind a legacy that lives within the hearts of us all.
Big John Tone rode a sorrel horse out of the Chocolate Mountains of southern California, then swung due north, riding parallel to the Colorado River.
Ahead of him lay Milpitas Wash, which at this time of year, high summer, was as dry as mummy dust. On the south bank of the wash stood a sprawling cabin with a corral, barn, other outbuildings and a few smoke-colored ironwood trees growing here and there.
Apart from the dozen horses in the corral and the pigs and chickens rooting around in mud near the screeching windmill, Tone saw no sign of life.
But John Wesley Stillwell and his three sons were there. Tone was ready to bet the farm on that. And their womenfolk, a thorny complication that all too often shaped up to trouble.
Tone drew rein on the sorrel, swung out of the saddle and slid a .44-40 Winchester from the scabbard. He slapped the horse away from him, then stood straddle-legged in front of the cabin.
The heat was intolerable, and sweat trickled down Tone’s back. Flies buzzed around his head and the thick air smelled of dust, pig shit and creosote bush.
“John Wesley Stillwell,” Tone yelled, his voice loud and commanding in the quiet. “Come out. We have business to attend to, you and I.”
Silence. Then a chair overturned, thumping onto the cabin floor as though someone had brushed past it in some haste.
The door opened and Tone levered a round into his rifle.
A gray-haired, careworn woman stepped outside, probably years younger than she looked. The arid climate of the southern California plains country played hell on the fairer sex.
“I’m Martha Stillwell,” she said. She had her hands hidden under a linen apron. “What do you want?”
Tone acknowledged the woman’s presence with a slight incline of his head. “My business is with John Wesley, ma’am, not you. Tell him to step out and take his medicine.”
“My husband is not home.”
A curtain twitched in the window to the left of the door. Tone noted the movement and would remember it.
Martha spoke again. “What business do you have with my husband?”
“I think you already know my business, ma’am. John Wesley is wanted dead or alive for murder and cattle stealing. The price on his head is five hundred dollars, and I can take him in alive or dead. The choice is his.”
“We have womenfolk inside, and children.”
“They can come out after John Wesley.”
The woman took a step toward Tone, her mouth working. “Mister, we have so little and don’t foresee nothing but hard times comin’ down. We don’t need more misery heaped on misery.”
“John Wesley should have studied on that before he lifted cattle and murdered a drover, ma’am.”
Tone’s ice blue eyes ranged across the front of the cabin. Did that damned curtain move again?
“The drover fell off his horse and broke his neck,” Martha said. “John Wesley had no hand in that.”
“The vaquero died trying to stop your husband from running off his patrón’s cattle. If there had been no rustling, the man would still be alive.” Tone motioned to the cabin with his rifle. “The day is waning fast and my patience grows thin. Tell John Wesley to get out here.”
The woman shook her head. “My God, man, have some pity.”
“I have none to give, ma’am.”
“Who are you? Or are you a devil in the guise of a human being?”
“My name is John Tone.” He touched his hat brim. “Your servant, ma’am.”
Martha looked like she’d been slapped. “I’ve heard of you, John Tone. You’re the Nevada gunfighter all the men talk about.”
“Get your husband out here, ma’am, or I’ll go inside for him.” Tone’s cold eyes chilled the woman like winter wind. “If I am forced to do that, I’ll kill anyone, man, woman or child, who gets in my way.”
But the woman was no longer hearing words. Instinct had taken over, transforming her into a she-wolf protecting her brood. “You heartless son of a bitch!” she screamed.
As Tone had known they would, when Martha took her hands out from under her apron, they were holding a gun. As she thumbed back the hammer on the old Dragoon Colt, her eyes fixed on him, Tone fired. The impact of the heavy bullet slamming into her chest drove the woman backward. Amid a flurry of white petticoats, she tumbled into an empty zinc water trough and lay still.
A bearded man ran out the door, carrying a Greener shotgun. He took in the scene at a glance and cried, “Martha!” with an agonized shriek of despair and loss.
John Wesley Stillwell’s lips curled back from his teeth in a