Under the stars and bars.., p.14

Under the Stars and Bars (A Dusty Fog Civil War Western Book 4), page 14

 

Under the Stars and Bars (A Dusty Fog Civil War Western Book 4)
 


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  Having known Dusty since childhood in Polveroso City, Svenson had not been misled by the small Texan’s passive behavior. So the recruit had stood quietly, but ready and waiting to take full advantage of Dusty’s response to the threat when it came.

  Attracted by the conversation between Dusty and Monte, the two hard-cases at the bar had allowed their attention to be diverted from the men they were supposed to be guarding. On seeing how Dusty handled the gambler, Abe and Harpe hastily began to turn their weapons in his direction. They were confused by the sudden and—as it appeared to them—miraculous turn of events. Nor did the stocky blond recruit give them time to recover from the shock of seeing the diminutive captain almost casually flip the much heftier Monte over his shoulder.

  Jerking his wrist to the right, Svenson propelled the contents of his glass into Abe’s face. Letting out a startled yelp, the hard-case retreated a few steps. Abe’s hands rose n an involuntary gesture as the raw liquor stung his eyes and his gun went off to send its bullet harmlessly into the ceiling. Ignoring Abe after throwing the whiskey, Svenson hurled himself to the left. Ramming his shoulder into Harpe, he knocked the guerilla staggering. At the same moment, seizing his opportunity, the hotel’s owner dropped out of sight behind the counter.

  From throwing Monte over his shoulder, Dusty straightened his bent leg and thrust himself erect. While spinning around to face the bar, he noticed that Gilbertson had snatched up Monte’s Starr revolver and was coming to his feet. Satisfied that the Yankee would honor his parole, Dusty expected that he would use the gun to help fight off the guerillas. So Dusty concentrated his attention on dealing with the gambler’s companions. He saw Svenson charging into Harpe, but knew that the affair had not yet ended.

  Still reeling from the impact, Harpe cut loose with a shot in Dusty’s direction. Lead screamed eerily by the small Texan’s head, coming so close that it gave warning of the hard-case’s ability. A man with such skill was too dangerous to be trifled with.

  Dusty sent his hands flashing across his body. Like twin extensions of his will, the matched Colts left their holsters. Passing each other with smooth precision, the seven-and-a-half inch long Civilian Model barrels xxv turned outwards and pointed at Harpe. Before the guns had cleared leather, their hammers were thumbed back to the full-cock position. Once the barrels started to turn, Dusty’s forefingers entered the trigger guards. So all was ready the instant the Colts lined at his target.

  From waist high, aimed by instinctive alignment, the Colts went off in what sounded like a single crash. Three-quarters of a second after Dusty’s hands had made their first movements, two 219-grain bullets were speeding towards Harpe. Both struck him in the forehead with less than an inch separating them. Flung backwards, the guerilla collided with the bar and bounced lifeless from it to the floor.

  While the smoke still swirled from his guns, a sudden impact from behind knocked Dusty reeling. With an effort, he managed to maintain his hold on the two Colts. Fighting to regain his balance and avoid falling, he heard the sound of running feet to his rear and twisted to look over his shoulder.

  About to turn back and deal with Abe, after watching Dusty take Harpe out of the game, Svenson saw Gilbertson lunge from his chair. Dropping his right shoulder, the Yankee officer charged the small Texan from the rear. Having knocked Dusty out of the way, the Volunteer bounded across the room. It was clear that, despite having given his word, he intended to escape.

  Letting out an angry bellow, Svenson sprang to meet the fleeing man. No gun-fighter, the blond recruit lacked the coordination and fast reactions required to draw a gun with blinding speed. In a fight, he much preferred to use his big fists. So he plunged resolutely in Gilbertson’s direction and made no attempt to reach for his holstered revolver.

  Even when he had given it, Gilbertson had had no intention of keeping his parole. He had planned to take advantage of his escort relaxing their vigilance, on accepting his word, and to escape during the night. To make certain of reaching safety, he would need a horse. Learning that Dusty was putting two men to guard the party’s mounts had caused Gilbertson’s hopes to dwindle. The intervention of Monte’s guerillas had opened another avenue of departure for him.

  Acting more on blind impulse than a thought-out plan, Gilbertson had not used the Starr to remove Dusty from his path. By the time the idea of doing so had come to him, he had knocked the small Texan aside and gone running by. To turn and shoot would waste valuable seconds; especially when the second of the guerillas might kill the Rebel captain for him. At that moment too, the stocky blond recruit presented a greater threat to Gilbertson’s bid for freedom.

  Throwing forward the Starr, the Volunteer pressed its trigger. Back rode the double-action hammer, then slammed forward. A .44 bullet ripped into the center of Svenson’s chest, halting his advance. Involuntarily Gilbertson relaxed his forefinger and tightened it again. The Starr spat at the height of its recoil kick, sending its next load into the center of Svenson’s forehead. Knocked from his feet, the recruit no longer impeded Gilbertson’s flight. Without giving his victim a second glance, the Volunteer ran on.

  Digging in with his heels, Dusty came to a halt and started to swing in Gilbertson’s direction. Hot anger blazed inside the small Texan at the Volunteer’s treachery. Even as Dusty prepared to lunge in pursuit, a gun roared from the left side stairs and its bullet stirred his hair in passing.

  Throwing himself aside in a rolling dive, Dusty saw Will coming down the stairs. Smoke curled from the revolver in the man’s hand and he had miraculously lost his limp. There was no time to think about that. Landing on the floor, Dusty cut loose with first left, then right hand Colt. Through the swirling clouds of discharged gas that belched out of the muzzles, he saw Will jolt as if struck by an invisible hand. Falling backwards, Will sat down, then slid to the foot of the stairs. The Colt slipped from his hand as he came to a stop.

  Turning on to his stomach, Dusty saw his prisoner leaping through the front door. Before the small Texan could make another movement, he heard the blast of detonating gun-powder. Splinters erupted from the planks ahead of him. Twirling himself over so that he could look in the direction from which the shot had come, Dusty saw Abe looming towards him. Again the man fired, but his whiskey-inflamed eyes and the haste of his actions did not lend to accurate sighting. Another hole appeared in the floor, less than a foot from the side of Dusty’s head.

  Trained thumbs drew back the Colts’ hammers as Dusty continued to roll over. He squeezed the triggers while on his back and with the revolvers extended at arms’ length above his head. Shock twisted the rage from the guerilla’s face as two bullets tore through his rib-cage. Spinning in a circle, he released his hold on his weapon and stumbled away from it to collapse face down.

  Completing his roll, Dusty wasted no time in regaining his feet. Yet, fast as he moved, he knew that he might still be too late. From the street came the snorting of disturbed horses and, farther away, shouts rang out. Running towards the window, Dusty noticed that Monte was recovering and rolling painfully back and forwards on the table.

  Ignoring the gambler, Dusty watched what was happening outside the building. Already Gilbertson had swung astride the best of the horses fiddle-footing nervously at the hitching-rail. Up swung the Starr, crashing twice in concert with the Volunteer’s wild and ringing yell. All too well Dusty saw the other’s plan. With their own horses unsaddled at the livery barn, the Texans might still have launched a rapid pursuit using the remaining guerillas’ mounts. So Gilbertson intended to run them off and put them beyond the reach of the Rebels. Swinging his borrowed horse around by savagely tugging at the reins, the Volunteer started it moving. Already disturbed, the other animals scattered and fled into the night.

  Spitting out furious curses, Dusty hurled himself towards the window. Behind him, the hotel’s owner had made a cautious reappearance and wailed a protest as his intentions became apparent. Paying no attention to the man, Dusty covered his head with his arms and
propelled himself from the building by the closest route. Glass shattered and wood crackled as Dusty passed through the window. Landing on the sidewalk, he swung his right hand Colt to shoulder level. He sighted as well as he could at the fast-moving, already barely-discernible rider. More in hope than expectancy, Dusty squeezed off a shot. Even as the recoil kicked the barrel upwards, he knew that he had missed.

  Boots drumming a rapid tattoo along the sidewalk, Kiowa, Prince and Graveling raced up. They all held their guns, but had no target at which to aim. Gilbertson had gone from sight.

  ‘What the hell—?’ Kiowa began.

  ‘Gilbertson ran out!’ Dusty spat back. ‘Let’s go inside. The son-of-a-bitch shot Ollie Svenson.’

  Turning without further chatter, the enlisted men followed Dusty through the hotel’s front door. On entering the room, they saw the gambler straightening up with Will’s Colt in his hand. Snarling in mixed fear and fury, Monte tried to turn his acquired weapon on the newcomers. Six revolvers roared in a ragged volley, Dusty and Prince each carrying one in either hand. Literally lifted from his feet and hurled backwards by the bullets, any one of which would have been fatal, the gambler crumpled lifeless in the left rear corner of the room.

  ‘That’s the last of them!’ Dusty said with savage bitterness. ‘See to Ollie.’

  Holstering his revolver, Graveling walked over and made a brief examination of the body. Looking to where the rest of the Texans were replacing their guns into leather, he gave a resigned shrug.

  ‘He’s cashed in.’

  ‘What happened?’ Prince demanded truculently. ‘How did—?’

  ‘No chance of following the Yankee, Cap’n Dusty,’ Kiowa put in, glaring a furious warning that silenced the recruit. ‘Not afore morning, anyways.’

  ‘None,’ Dusty agreed. ‘But I want to be on his trail as soon as it’s daylight, Kiowa.’

  ‘He’ll be over the Caddo afore then!’ Prince protested.

  ‘I don’t care where the hell he is!’ Dusty replied and the young recruit began to feel an awareness of his personality’s full deadly powerful force. ‘Gilbertson broke his parole and killed one of my friends. I aim to fetch him back.’

  ~*~

  Straightening up after a long, careful examination of a set of hoof-marks, Kiowa turned and walked to where Dusty, Prince and Surtees were waiting for him. The sun had only barely lifted above the eastern horizon, but the sergeant-scout had been out at the first glint of light and following his commanding officer’s orders.

  ‘I’d say these’re the right ’n’s, Cap’n Dusty,’ Kiowa declared. ‘They’re the right age, anyways, and toting a rider.’

  ‘Trouble being they’re not headed towards the Caddo,’ Dusty pointed out. Twisting in his saddle, he looked back at the town of Amity. ‘It’s the way Gilbertson came out, though.’

  If the incident had taken place the previous day, Tracey Prince would have been crowding forward and inserting his views on the matter. Sitting his horse at the rear of the party, as became its most junior, and inexperienced member, he waited to discover what Captain Fog and the lean, Indian-dark sergeant intended to do. Already aware of Kiowa Cotton’s competence before they had left Prescott, Prince was becoming more and more convinced that he had been wrong in dismissing Dusty Fog as a rich kid put into power by his kin-folk.

  For all his cocky attitude and believing that he was so wild he had never been curried below the knees, Prince possessed enough common-sense to realize he had gone as far as he could without forcing an open showdown between himself and Dusty. Although he fought against admitting it, his instincts also warned him that he might regret the result if a clash came. He had seen and heard enough the previous night to tell him that Dusty Fog was far more than Ole Devil Hardin’s nephew wearing a captain’s coat.

  After Svenson’s body had been removed from the barroom, Prince had watched the coldly efficient manner in which Dusty had handled the rest of the situation. While the small Texan and Kiowa had accompanied the town constable to inspect the dead guerillas’ rooms, the hotel’s owner had delivered a graphic description to Prince and the assembled townsmen of what had happened.

  The story of how Dusty had so easily tossed the bulky gambler over his shoulder had drawn excited comments from the civilians. Prince had been less impressed, for he had seen that side of his captain’s ability demonstrated. What started the recruit’s change of heart had been the visual proof of Dusty’s gun-fighting potential.

  Svenson had been killed with his gun still in leather. Certainly the Yankee officer had played no part in the fight beyond shooting down the blond recruit. That meant Dusty Fog must have come through the corpse-and-cartridge affair unaided and against three men. More to the point, he had killed two and critically wounded the third of his assailants. Prince had sufficient knowledge of shooting to imagine the deadly gun-skill required to ensure survival under those exacting conditions.

  Yet there had been more to Dusty Fog than just fast, accurate and effective lead-throwing. Prince had received further evidence of his Company commander’s dynamic personality as he watched how Dusty had handled the irate owner of the hotel. At first the man had been nervous and inclined to righteous indignation; nervous over how his Army-guests would regard his part—or lack of it—in the affair, and indignant about the damage suffered by his property.

  Without threats or recriminations, Dusty had calmed and soothed the man. He had, on his return from searching the guerillas’ property, stated that he did not hold the owner responsible for the incident; which had been a relief to the man. On the subject of the shattered window, Dusty had pointed out that the dead guerilla’s belongings and such of their horses as might be recovered ought to more than pay for its replacement.

  A shrewd businessman, the owner had seen the wisdom of not pressing his complaints farther. If he did so, he would certainly antagonize a member of the most powerful faction in West Arkansas. Thinking deeper into the affair, the owner could also see how his business might benefit from it. Every instinct the owner possessed had told him that the young captain might, most likely would, attain some prominence in the future. So the hotel could attract custom by being the scene of an incident involving him. With that in mind, the owner had announced that he did not blame Captain Fog for the trouble or the damage.

  Borrowing a pen, ink and writing paper, Dusty had made out a report of the incident. At least, Prince assumed that was what his captain had written. Whatever it had been, Dusty had given the completed document to Graveling and issued orders for its delivery to the Regiment’s headquarters. A hard-case, with a reputation for salty toughness, Graveling’s unspoken acceptance of the orders had been a further subject of thought for Prince. After making arrangements for Svenson’s funeral, the Texans had turned in.

  Before daylight that morning, Dusty and his men had been preparing to move out. Graveling had come to see them off and been told to attend the funeral, then return to Prescott as quickly as he could.

  Now a chastened, slightly perturbed Prince sat watching Dusty Fog and awaiting the next development.

  ‘We’ll see where these tracks go,’ Dusty decided.

  ‘Yo!’ Kiowa replied.

  Collecting his horse from Surtees, the sergeant went afork it with a bound. Dusty nudged his stallion’s ribs with his heels and gave the order to move out. With his eyes raking the ground ahead, Kiowa took the lead. Following the tracks of a single horse over short, springy grass and through lightly-wooded country could not be done at speed. So the party moved slowly and in a westerly direction.

  After covering about a mile, Dusty could sense the two privates’ doubts and knew what caused them. In fact, while he had complete faith in Kiowa’s ability to read sign, he began to wonder if maybe they were following the wrong set of tracks.

  ‘Feller stopped there,’ Kiowa remarked, bringing his horse to a halt and pointing ahead. ‘Then he turned around a couple of times, like he was trying to figure which way he was headed.’
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  ‘What’d he decide?’ Dusty inquired.

  ‘Moved off to the north,’ Kiowa replied.

  ‘That’d take him to Caddo,’ Dusty said.

  ‘Sure would,’ Kiowa agreed. ‘Giddap, hoss!’

  Starting their mounts moving, they followed the tracks but had not covered more than a hundred yards before Kiowa stopped them again.

  ‘He’s swinging off to the west again, Cap’n Dusty.’

  ‘Could be he’s lost. That’d happen easy enough. A man could soon get himself all turned around in this sort of country on a dark night.’

  ‘A dude like that Yankee could,’ Kiowa admitted. ‘And if he’s lost, maybe we’ll find him.’

  ‘We can hope on it,’ Dusty drawled.

  The hope did not materialize. After wavering from side to side and changing direction twice in the next half a mile, the rider had stopped and made camp for the night. Clearly he had wasted no time in getting his bearings at sun-up, for he had already moved off in the correct direction if he wanted to reach the Caddo River.

  ‘He’s not more’n an hour and a half ahead,’ Kiowa commented as they took up the trail again. ‘What do we do now, Cap’n Dusty, see if we can ride him down?’

  ‘Nope. Not with that much of a lead on us,’ Dusty replied. ‘He’ll be over the Caddo before we can do it.’

  For the first time that morning, Prince put in a question. When he spoke, his voice held little of its earlier arrogant near-insolence.

  ‘What’ll we do if he licks us to the river and goes over, Cap’n?’

  ‘We’ll go after him,’ Dusty stated flatly.

  ‘It’ll be near on two days afore the Company can get here,’ Prince pointed out. ‘By that time—’

  ‘We won’t be waiting for the Company,’ Dusty interrupted quietly, then turned his attention to the front.

 
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