Under Apache Skies, page 1
Under Apache Skies
About the Author
The sound of gunfire rolled through the early morning air like summer thunder. Muttering an oath, Ridge Longtree holstered his Colt. He hadn’t wanted to kill the kid, but the young would-be gunman hadn’t given him any other choice.
Swinging onto the back of his horse, Longtree urged the big black stud into a lope. The shocked faces of a young mother and her little girl flashed by in a blur as the black raced down the dusty main street, headed for the open prairie beyond.
So much for hanging up his gun and settling down. He had lost track of the men he had killed, the times he had tried to settle down, only to have some young gunsel discover who he was and push him into a showdown. The results were always the same…a blast of gunfire, the stink of death, a quick exodus from whatever town he was in at the moment.
In the beginning, he had relished the thrill of it, the exhilaration of pitting the speed of his draw against that of another. He had lived for the quick rush of fear and excitement as he put his life on the line. But now…hell, now he was just tired of it all.
The black slowed of its own accord after a few miles, and Longtree let the horse set its own pace. Lost in thought, he paid little attention to the direction the stud was taking other than to note that they seemed to be drifting west.
Drifting, he mused. That was all he’d done in the last twelve years, just drift, like some rootless tumbleweed. Of course, for a man who had no ties, and no place to settle down even if he was of a mind to, there wasn’t much else to do but drift.
Good whiskey, easy women, and bucking the tiger; those had been his main pursuits since he left home. Somewhere along the way, he had discovered he could draw and fire a gun in the blink of an eye. In addition to being shit fast, he was possessed of an uncanny knack to hit what he aimed at. He had been pushed into killing his first man. He had been young and impulsive at the time, quick to anger, quick to take offense when someone called him a lowdown dirty half-breed. Until that fateful night, he had never fired his Colt at anything more dangerous than jackrabbits and empty beer bottles. But that night, goaded into a showdown, he had drawn his gun and killed a man. He would never forget that night, the recoil of his Colt, the quick flash of muzzle fire, the acrid stink of gunpowder. The sickly sweet, coppery smell of blood that had overpowered everything else.
His first reaction was that he was glad he wasn’t the one lying facedown in the dirt. It was only later, after the first rush of adrenaline had passed, that the full impact of what he had done hit him.
He had killed a man only a little older than himself.
He had been arrested and spent the night in jail, only to be released when witnesses declared that Ridge had fired in self-defense. During that one night in jail, he had discovered that he had a powerful dislike for being locked up in small spaces.
He had seen the grief he had caused at the funeral three days later, seen it in the eyes of the young man’s mother and father, in the tears that flowed down the cheeks of the boy’s intended bride. He had heard the sorrow in the voices of those who had been the young man’s friends.
Muttering an oath, Ridge thrust the memory from his mind. He had killed a dozen men since that first one, and in doing so, he had made quite a name for himself. His reputation followed him from town to town, as relentless as his shadow. There was no way to outride it, no way to get shed of it. It stuck to him like a burr to a saddle blanket. In time, he had learned to live with it.
It was near dark when he spotted the house, a sprawling two-story place located in a shallow valley. There were a couple of peeled-pole corrals filled with horses on one side and a big red barn on the other, along with a bunkhouse, cookhouse, and springhouse. Several tall trees shaded the front porch. A long plume of smoke spiraled from the chimney of the main house, and even as he watched, lights appeared in the windows.
The place looked downright prosperous. Prosperous enough to maybe give him a place to bunk down for the night. Clucking to the black, he rode down the hill.
“Rider coming in.”
Dani Flynn looked up from where she was setting the table. “Should I set another place?”
Marty Flynn shook her head. “Looks like a stranger,” she said, lifting the rifle from the rack above the front door. “And a dangerous one.”
“Well,” Dani said, “if you invite him to dinner, you might not have to shoot him.”
Turning away from the window, Marty glanced at her sister, one dark brow arched. “If I shoot him, we won’t have to invite him to dinner.”
“Well, you’d better let Pa talk to him before you pull the trigger. We could use another hand, you know. Pa won’t like it if you take a shot at this fella and then find out he was just looking for work.”
Marty looked out the window once more. “This one doesn’t look like a cowhand to me.”
The stranger was in the yard now. Mounted on a handsome black horse, he wore a dark gray shirt, black trousers, expensive-looking boots, and a black hat with a snakeskin band. He sat there a moment, his head slowly turning from side to side as he looked the place over. He sat tall in the saddle, his hat pulled low, his hand resting on the butt of his gun.
She watched him dismount, noting the easy way he moved, the fact that he took the time to stroke his horse’s neck before dropping the reins over the hitching post. Then the stranger turned toward the house, and she got her first look at his face.
It was a strong face, made up of clean lines and sharp angles. His brows were straight and black, his nose slightly crooked. His jaw was shadowed by a day’s growth of bristles. Long black hair fell past his shoulders.
Dani went to look out the window, her eyes widening when she saw the stranger. Maybe her sister was right. He sure didn’t look like any of the cowboys from around here. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was that set him apart. Maybe it was the way he moved, loose-limbed and confident; maybe it was the fact that his clothes looked more expensive than those worn by the local cowboys. Whatever it was, she didn’t like it.
Dani backed away from the window as he climbed the porch steps, sent a worried glance at Marty when the stranger knocked on the front door.
Holding the rifle loosely in the crook of her arm, Marty opened the door.
“Evenin’,” said a deep voice. “I was wonderin’ if you could put me up for the night.”
Standing out of the stranger’s sight, Dani watched Marty’s gaze
After a long pause, Marty said, “I suppose you can bunk with the hands for the night.”
“Obliged to ya.”
“Tell Scanlan I said it was okay.”
“And you’d be?”
“Martha Jean Flynn.”
“Ridge Longtree.” He touched a finger to the brim of his hat, turned, and descended the porch steps.
Looking out the window again, Marty watched the stranger take up his horse’s reins and walk toward the bunkhouse. He had a long, easy stride. She noticed that his left hand stayed close to the butt of his gun.
“You didn’t ask him if he was looking for a job,” Dani remarked.
Marty closed the door, her expression thoughtful.
“He’s not a cowboy.”
Dani didn’t think so either, but she couldn’t resist asking, “How do you know?”
“Didn’t you see the way he wears that Colt? Like it’s part of him? I’d bet my last pair of bloomers that he’s some kind of fast gun.”
Dani leaned forward, her eyes sparkling with curiosity. “Do you really think so?”
“Yes. And you stay away from him, you hear?”
“Don’t worry. Anyway, he’s leaving tomorrow.”
“Yes,” Marty said. “And it’s a good thing. You’d better finish setting the table. Pa will be home soon.”
With a nod, Dani returned to her task.
Walking to the fireplace, Marty put the rifle back in the rack. Pa had gone to town that morning to pick up the mail. Dani was expecting a dress she had ordered from the East. It was the first new dress she’d had in over a year, and Marty couldn’t blame her for being excited. Dani set a store by pretty clothes and fancy things. Marty knew Dani was hoping to wear it the next time Cory came to call. Dani was also hoping for a letter from their mother, even though Marty knew a letter would never come.
Nettie Flynn had moved back to Boston seven years ago. She had left without a word, something Marty could neither understand nor forgive. Dani didn’t understand it either. She had cried for Mama for weeks, had begged Marty to write their mother and ask if they could live with her, but Marty had flat-out refused. Marty loved the ranch, loved the West, and she wasn’t about to go east. Finally, Marty had agreed to write their mother and ask if Dani could live with her. Dani had given the letter to her father and asked him to mail it for her. Weeks passed. Every time Pa came home from town with the mail, she had been certain he would have an answer to her letter. But her mother had never written back.
In the end, Marty had convinced Dani that Mama didn’t want them anymore. Marty knew Dani didn’t believe that, would never believe it. Marty couldn’t help feeling sorry for her sister. She knew Dani often wondered what it would be like to live in the East. If Dani lived with their mother, her life would be much easier than it was now. She would be wearing dresses instead of pants and cotton shirts, pretty shoes instead of boots run down at the heel. But, as Marty had told her sister so often, there was nothing to be gained in daydreaming about things that would never come true.
Putting thoughts of her mother and sister aside, Marty found herself thinking about the stranger. Ridge Longtree. A curious name. He was a handsome man, in a rugged, weathered sort of way. He wore his hair longer than most of the men in these parts. She wondered if he preferred it that way, or if he was just in need of a haircut. Not that it mattered. Tomorrow, he’d be gone.
The desultory chatter inside the bunkhouse ceased as Ridge stepped through the doorway. Seven pairs of eyes swung in his direction, all giving him a quick once-over and reaching the same conclusion—he wasn’t a cowhand.
Ridge nodded to the room in general. “I’m looking for Scanlan.”
A tall, lanky man with bushy eyebrows and a shock of brown hair liberally streaked with gray stepped forward. “I’m Scanlan.”
“The lady up at the house said I could bunk here for the night.”
Scanlan jerked his chin toward a cot near the far side of the building. “You can use that one.”
The men went back to what they were doing, but Ridge was aware of their curious stares as he walked toward the empty bunk.
The bunkhouse was long and rectangular. Cots lined both sides of the room. A number of windows in the east and west walls provided cross-ventilation in the summer; a potbellied stove stood in the center of the floor. Pictures of women cut out of magazines were tacked to the walls here and there. A calendar advertising Pete’s Hay and Feed hung from a nail near the door.
Ridge dropped his saddlebags on the floor at the foot of the bunk. Sitting down, he pulled off his boots, then stretched out on the cot, his arms folded behind his head, his hat pulled low over his eyes.
After a moment, a low hum of conversation filled the room. On the brink of sleep, Ridge wondered idly how much of it involved him.
Marty drew the curtain away from the window and stared out into the darkness. “What do you suppose is keeping Pa? I can’t believe he’d be late on a night when he knows you’re doing the cooking.”
Dani smiled, pleased by her sister’s offhand compliment. “I hope he’s all right.”
“I’m sure he’s fine. Sunny probably came up lame, that’s all. I’ve been telling Pa for over a year that he needs to put that old mare out to pasture.”
Dani dropped the apron she’d been mending into the basket and stretched her shoulders and neck. “Sometimes I think he loves that old horse more than he loves us.”
Marty let the curtain fall back into place. “I’m going to bed, and so should you. Maybe he just decided to spend the night in town.”
“He wouldn’t!” Dani exclaimed. “He wouldn’t worry us like that, not at a time like this.” She looked into her sister’s eyes and saw her own anxiety mirrored there. “You’re worried, too, aren’t you?”
Marty nodded. “But there’s no sense worrying until we know there’s something to worry about. Come on; we might as well get some sleep.”
Later, lying in bed, Marty wished she could take her own advice, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong. Pa never stayed out this late. What if something had happened to him? What if Sunny had thrown him? What if that lowdown dirty snake Victor Claunch had bushwhacked him? Claunch had been after their ranch ever since he had bought the neighboring spread. He had tried buying them out. He had tried scaring them out. He had tried damming the river. He had even poisoned some of their cattle. Of course, they couldn’t prove any of it, but Marty knew Claunch was behind it. He had even tried courting her, but she had turned him down flat and threatened to geld him if he didn’t leave her alone. She grinned into the darkness. She could do it, too, she thought smugly. She could rope and ride with the best of the cowhands.
Turning onto her side, she pillowed her cheek on her hand. Her last thought before sleep claimed her was of the stranger. He wasn’t an ordinary cowhand, that was for sure. So who was he and what was he doing here? Was it just coincidence that he had turned up at the ranch on the same day that Pa had gone missing?
“Dani! Dani! Wake up!”
Marty’s voice roused Dani from the delicious dream she’d been having. “Go ‘way.”
“Dani, get up.”
Dani peered at the window, a frown creasing her brow. “It’s not even morning yet,” she said with a groan. “Go away.”
“Pa’s horse just came in.”
Dani bolted upright. “His horse? Where’s Pa?”
“I don’t know. There’s blood on the saddle.”
Dani leaped out of bed. Grabbing her robe, she flew down the stairs and out the front door. Her father’s horse stood at the hitch rack. Suddenly reluctant, she paused a moment before descending the steps.
The door opened behind her as Marty emerged from the house, a lantern in her hand.
Dani stared at the ugly reddish-brown stain on her father’s saddle, at the rust-colored drop
“I don’t know.” Settling her hat on her head, Marty walked down the stairs. “I’m going to get Scanlan and backtrack Pa’s trail.”
“I’m going with you.”
Dani let out a huff of exasperation. Marty was six years older than she was and had been bossing her around ever since their mother had decided she’d had enough of ranch life and returned to the East. Most times, Dani let Marty get away with it just to keep peace in the family, but not now.
“I’m going, and you can’t stop me!”
“Oh, all right, go get dressed while I saddle our horses.”
Ridge stood in the doorway of the bunkhouse, one shoulder propped against the jamb while he watched the commotion at the barn. Several lanterns had been lit, both inside the barn and out. He could see a number of cowhands, most of them wearing their jeans over their longhandles, clustered around Martha Flynn and a horse. The men were gesturing at the animal, and they all seemed to be talking at once. Ridge wasn’t much given to curiosity, but since he was awake… With a shrug, he ambled over to see what was going on.
Martha Flynn was issuing orders. “Scanlan, you and Smitty come with me…”
“Hold on,” Scanlan said. “There’s no need for you to be riding out in the middle of the night. We’ll—”
“There’s every need,” Martha Flynn interjected, her voice cool. “He’s my father, and I’m in charge when he’s not here.”
Ridge grinned inwardly. It was obvious from the Flynn woman’s tone of voice that she was accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed without question. It was equally obvious that Scanlan didn’t like it one bit.
“As I was saying,” Martha Flynn continued, “Scanlan, you and Smitty will come with me. Lon, I want you and Johnson to keep watch while we’re gone.”
“It was that son of a…” The man looked at Martha and cleared his throat. “It was Claunch who done this,” he said. “You know it. I know it. We can’t just let him get away with it.”
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