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Blood on the Gallows-Ralph Compton.

Blood on the Gallows-Ralph Compton. Электронная библиотека, книги всех жанров

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      Street Brawling

      Driven with all McBride’s strength, the brass butt plate of the Yellow Boy crashed into the side of Jake’s head and the man dropped like a felled ox.

      Ed cursed and went for his gun.

      McBride swung on him and rammed the muzzle of the rifle into the man’s belly. Ed bent double, retching, and McBride grasped the rifle in both hands and chopped upward, driving the top of the receiver into Ed’s mouth. The gunman convulsively triggered a shot into the timber of the boardwalk, then straightened for a moment before staggering into the fence. The slender pine rails splintered under his weight and Ed fell on his back into the mud, his ruined mouth a startled, bloody O of smashed teeth and pulped lips.

      

      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.

      —Ralph Compton

      Chapter 1

      Big John McBride felt mighty small, dwarfed by the towering landscape around him.

      A mile to his north reared the pine-covered peaks of the Capitan Mountains, their slopes streaked with winter snow that had hardened into ice and lingered into spring. Ahead of him, almost hidden behind a curtain of rain, Tucson Mountain was a hulking dark shape against ramparts of clouds the color of old pewter.

      It seemed to McBride that the entire country had stood itself on end, soaring into the sky like petrified organ music. The stunning majesty of God’s creation has the ability to humble a man, and right about then John McBride could have written the book on humility.

      He was hopelessly lost in a wilderness that offered him nothing. He had missed his last six meals and was gloomily looking forward to soon adding to that number by one. He rode a mouse-colored, eight-hundred-pound mustang with a choppy gait that chafed even his tough hide, and the teeming rain had found its way inside his canvas slicker, adding to his misery.

      Hours earlier, around noon, he guessed, he’d seen a bull elk walk out of the aspen line of a mountain slope, then stand close to an outcrop of sandstone rock, its nose raised as it tested the wind.

      McBride had considered shooting the elk for meat. But he’d soon dismissed the idea. He was no great shakes with a rifle, and the elk had been at least a hundred yards away and uphill at that. As is common among men who ride lonely trails, he’d spoken his thoughts aloud.

      ‘‘And if you do kill that beast, what are you going to do with it then, John?’’ he’d asked himself.

      City born and city bred, he’d had no answer. He’d never skinned an animal in his life and he was sure if he tried he’d make a real mess of it. Even if, by some miracle, he’d succeeded in hacking out a steak, he’d need a fire to cook it. And making a fire in the rain was way beyond his ability. In fact, he’d ruefully told himself, making a fire in dry weather was usually way beyond his ability.

      Dismally, he’d watched the elk walk back into the aspen, its tail flicking a derisive farewell.

      Still hungry, McBride drew rein on the mustang and pondered his options, which were few. Around him the land lay quiet but for the hiss of the rain. Left to itself, nature loves silence. The trees, the flowers, the grass grow in silence and the sun, moon and stars make their revolutions in a deep hush. Only man visits the quiet places to kick up a din, but that day John McBride was not one of them.

      He had ridden closer to Tucson Mountain; he rubbed rain from his eyes with the back of his hand and studied its slope. A faint switchback trail climbed gradually through a piñon and juniper forest, then disappeared among pure stands of ponderosa. But where did it lead?

      McBride hoped for a town, but he was willing to bet that after the trail climbed the peak and dropped to the other side he’d see only more tall mountains and deep, impassible canyons.

      His mind made up, he kicked his pony into motion and skirted the mountain, riding northeast through a narrow, grassy valley studded with mesquite and thick stands of prickly pear.

      The sky was turning darker and the light was fleeing as McBride splashed across a fast-running creek and then rode into rugged hill country, cut through by ridges of bald sandstone rock. Rain drummed on his plug hat, driven by a rising wind, and the bleak landscape around him promised little. Very soon he would have to make a cold camp somewhere out of the wind and rain—if such a place could be found.

      McBride rode up on a wide draw running with six inches of water. Come summer the draw would dry up and fill with dust, but now it was just another river to cross. He urged the mustang down a sandy bank that he guessed had been broken down years ago by buffalo or more recently by cattle, and then climbed the opposite side. The mustang had faltered as it splashed through the water, and now its ugly hammer head hung low, its steps slow and plodding. The little horse was all used up, just as its rider was, and McBride knew the time had come to stop and let the animal rest.

      He climbed out of the saddle, ungainly and awkward, a man unused to riding, and gathered up the reins. He looked around him but nowhere could he see a place to shelter. The rain was heavier now, relentlessly hammering at him, and the angry sky began to flash with lightning. Ahead of McBride the land rose gradually for a mile or so, then climbed abruptly toward a ridge backboned with upthrust slabs of rock, a few stunted junipers and piñons growing here and there among them.

      McBride blinked against the rain and studied the ridge. There could be shelter for both man and horse among the massive shelves of rock, he decided. Shelter but no food, his grumbling stomach reminded him, its patience worn thin.

      Thunder was banging in the distance as McBride led the mustang toward the ridge. It was almost fully dark and, like a demented artist, lightning painted the landscape with wild splashes of electric blue. The air smelled of wet grass and ozone and McBride was increasingly aware of the storm’s danger. He was a tall man on rising ground. The highest thing around. He quickened his pace and the mustang, sensing the man’s urgency, willingly followed.

      The slope of the ridge rose gradually, but it was slippery with mud, and the few

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