Marauders moon, p.1

Marauders' Moon, page 1

 

Marauders' Moon
 


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Marauders' Moon


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  Marauders’ Moon

  Luke Short

  CHAPTER ONE

  If “Iron Hat” Petty had not been so mad when he climbed the windmill tower behind the O. K. corral, he might have seen it. He didn’t, though. He ignored the shadeless and wind-bitten main street of Wagon Mound below and, with a length of bailing wire in his free hand, turned to the splintered pump shaft and cursed.

  So the men on each of the four main corners of town went unnoticed. Not that they weren’t obvious to the people on the street—and there were many of them—but Iron Hat would have read some order into their placement. If he had seen them, he would have immediately noticed they wore the straight-brimmed, low-crowned, and dented Stetsons of the Montana country. And seeing this, he would have studied them closer, noting that the man catty-corner from the bank stood at the tie-rail in front of three big-boned and sleek north country horses. Across the side street from him and leaning against the front of the sheriff’s office, the second man was slowly rolling a cigarette. The third, catty-corner from him, lounged on the tie-rail before two ground-haltered horses. The fourth man Iron Hat could not have seen, because he was leaning against the bank wall under the big window, looking up and down the street.

  Seeing this man, Iron Hat could have guessed where the fifth man was, but he didn’t see. About to climb down the ladder after a tool, Iron Hat only looked out on the broad plain surrounding the town. He saw two riders just entering on the east road, and he did notice that instead of riding abreast, they rode in single file. Iron Hat guessed right this time, because, even though he couldn’t make out the rifle across the saddle of the man in the rear, he knew it was there, and he wondered idly and without much interest, as an old man will, what prisoner was being brought in.

  The man holding the rifle across his thighs could have told Iron Hat it was Webb Cousins. He could have told him that he’d ridden close to a hundred and fifty miles, and across a wide desert, to get him, but very likely he would not have answered any one’s questions now. He was a short-tempered deputy at this moment.

  “Pull up, Cousins,” he said to the man ahead.

  The man on the big roan reined in and looked back over his shoulder, presenting to the deputy sheriff of Wintering County, the next to the south, a lean and sober face with a rash of freckles across the cheeks and forehead. He might have been twenty-six. His fists, resting folded on the saddle horn, were square, bony, like the set of his overbroad shoulders under the faded blue shirt, wet with perspiration. His dusty Stetson was pushed back a little, so that it rode at a careless angle atop a thick thatch of red hair; and his worn Levis and scuffed cow-boots contrived, with the Stetson, to give him an air of a man not over troubled by what was waiting for him. Rain gray and mocking eyes under thick eyebrows followed the approach of the deputy, whose carbine was cocked, pointed.

  “Put out your hand,” the deputy said surlily, at the same time fumbling in his saddlebags for a pair of handcuffs, which he eventually brought out.

  Cousins drawled, “You readin’ palms now?”

  There was something in the sleep-famished eyes and harried heavy face of the deputy that was just as ugly as his voice. With a quick gesture, he looped the cuffs over the saddle horn and palmed up a worn six-gun, which he cocked and leveled at Cousins, sheathing his carbine with the other hand.

  “The poster said alive or dead. Take your choice,” Deputy McWilliams said.

  Cousins said nothing.

  “I said, ‘Put out your hand.’”

  Cousins crossed his right hand over and held it out.

  “The other, damn you!”

  Webb complied, grinning faintly. McWilliams locked Webb’s left wrist to his own right, thus placing his carbine and six-gun, both holstered on the left side, farthest from Cousins. McWilliams was a heavy man, middle-aged, inclined to weight, some of which was in his full fighter’s jaw. He tipped back his battered Stetson now, and regarded Webb with angry distaste.

  “I may not get away with this,” he said slowly, sourly. “They don’t like us over in this county. But I can make you one promise. If they get snaky with me, you’re a dead man.”

  Webb frowned and jerked his head toward the town. “Ain’t this where we’re headed for?”

  “No. We’re one county too far north.”

  “And they don’t like you here?”

  “No. We’ve been known to shoot each other on sight.”

  Webb stared at him. “Then why go in?”

  McWilliams sighed and glared at him. “A man can stand only so much. I’m dead for sleep, and I got to have a jail for you. I’ll take a chance. So will you.”

  “Sure.”

  “All right. Come along.”

  They traveled on down the dusty road of the county-seat town, which passed a few pole corrals and shacks before it dived immediately into the two blocks of wooden-awninged stores flanking the fetlock-deep dust of the street. In the saddle, side by side, Cousins was not the bigger of these two men, but he was the taller, and even that may have been because he sat his saddle flatly and erectly. Or again, it may have been because, for the last three nights, he had slept deep and restfully, while McWilliams stayed awake to guard him.

  Approaching the four corners of Wagon Mound, Webb noticed a scattering of buckboards at the hitch-rack, and many saddle horses, but these appeared to be concentrated in front of the Lady Gay Saloon next to the bank.

  He observed the four corners curiously, at once identifying the sheriff’s office on one corner, and then his attention settled on the man standing before it. Something in this man’s attitude, his clothes, made Webb look across the street to the man leaning against the bank. Curiosity building in him, Webb turned his head and looked into the face of the man not fifteen feet from him, who was lounging against the tie-rail in front of two ground-haltered horses. Their glances met for a second, and both were hard, curious, the man’s quietly menacing, Webb’s faintly amused. To complete the picture, Webb looked across at the other corner. There was the fourth man. And Webb Cousins smiled.

  Pulling up in front of the sheriff’s office, Deputy McWilliams started to swing his leg over the saddle to dismount when he felt the tug of the handcuffs at his right wrist. He settled back in the saddle again, confronted with the necessity of dismounting on the right side of his horse or unlocking the handcuffs.

  “That’s what I was trying to tell you back there,” Webb said quietly.

  The deputy glared at him.

  Webb lowered his voice. “And you better do it quick, mister.”

  The deputy scowled. He sat there a moment longer, puzzled, then he swung his left leg up and almost fell out of the saddle on the right side of his horse. Trained to one way of mounting and dismounting, and that on his left side, the horse looked back, then started to pitch before McWilliams’s feet were on the ground. The deputy stumbled away, and would have fallen had it not been for Webb yanking him up by the handcuffs. The man smoking before the sheriff’s office smiled narrowly. He had a match in the corner of his mouth, and he spoke around it. “Pretty,” he remarked.

  McWilliams heard him, but he pretended not to. He said to Cousins, “Get down.”

  Webb dismounted. They swung under the tie-rail, wrist to wrist, just as the door of the sheriff’s office opened and a thick-bodied, burly man stepped out onto the single step. He slowly put his hands on his hips and spread his legs. His black saber mustaches seemed to bristle, and his eyes narrowed.

  “Well, well, a Winterin’ County deputy,” he
drawled in an ugly tone to McWilliams. “This is what you’d call a—”

  He never finished. From the depths of the bank a sharp, echoing report blasted out. The man with the match in his mouth, the man Webb had been watching, straightened up and lounged erect, and when both his feet were on the boardwalk, there was a gun in his hand.

  He pointed it toward the burly man in the door. “Get back in the clock, birdie,” he said flatly to the burly man.

  From across the street in the bank door there was a hurried tattoo of footsteps, those of a man running. The man with the gun did not look over; he was looking at the burly man and there was an unpleasant smile behind the match.

  Deputy McWilliams glanced hurriedly over his shoulder, saw the man with the heavy gunny sack streaking across the road, and then he said heavily, surprised, “Hey, that man stuck up—”

  “Sure,” the gunman said quietly, jeeringly. “Why don’t you try and bulldog him?” But he never looked at McWilliams. He was walking toward the man in the door, who was stepping gingerly back into the office.

  McWilliams took one swift look at the gunman, saw his back half turned, and went for his gun.

  The holdup guard across the street was watching this. When he saw McWilliams’s hand drop, he raised his own Colt, leveled it, took careful sight, and shot. McWilliams’s back arched and he fell forward, his weight dragging Webb with him. Webb, pulled to his knees, saw the hole in McWilliams’s back and he looked up at the jeering gunman not six feet from him.

  “You want out of them things, son?” the gunman asked.

  “No. Thanks.”

  “Okay. I only asked,” the gunman said. He swiveled his gun now and sent one swift shot through the batwing doors of the Lady Gay across the street, then he grinned at Webb, who now was sitting on the lone step of the sheriff’s office. The guard against the bank threw a shot over Webb’s head into the door of the office, then ran.

  The gunman beside Webb looked swiftly upstreet, saw that three of his confederates were mounted and waiting there. He reached up with his gun, broke the window of the sheriff’s office above him and shot once at its ceiling.

  “So long, bud,” he said to Webb, and ran for his horse.

  In another eight seconds, the five of them were galloping out of town. Only then did the men in the Lady Gay begin to boil out of its doors. There were shouts, a frantic milling of horses.

  CHAPTER TWO

  Behind Webb, the burly man bellowed unnecessarily, “They went south! Every man get a horse!”

  Out of the moil of horses and dust and running men, three horsemen broke away, and were at a gallop as they passed the bank. Then some order seemed to come out of the milling and the whole street was filled with men riding south. Even the merchants joined the posse; one man in a white apron, hatless, cursing, brought his horse out of a rear and joined the race.

  In another minute the thunder had passed, leaving a fog of dust in the canyon of the main street, and a silence that settled even more quickly.

  Webb saw a derbied, shambling man, Iron Hat Petty, leave the archway of the O. K. corral and pause to talk with the aproned bartender of the Lady Gay. As they looked up the street, the swing doors were shouldered open, and a gaunt, hunched man, who handled his single crutch like a second leg, swung out past them and started toward the bank. Halfway there, he saw Webb sitting on the doorstep of the sheriff’s office, and he hesitated, then swung under the hitch-rack and crossed the street.

  Closer to him now, Webb saw the star of the sheriff’s office on his vest, which was as careless and worn as his Stetson and Levis. His right leg was shorter than his left, and the foot was twisted out, encased in a boot with an unworn sole.

  He stopped in front of Webb, and the kindly look in his pale eyes was clouded with wonder as he silently observed McWilliams on his face, the locked handcuffs, and then Webb.

  “I know that man, don’t I?” he asked Webb.

  “McWilliams, over in the next county.”

  The sheriff nodded. His spare face, with its weathered skin so close to the skull, changed just a little with wonder.

  “Dead, is he?”

  “Yes.”

  The sheriff nodded. “Well, that’s one good thing come out of this. Turn him over.”

  Webb did, and the sheriff took one swift look at him. Then he settled his attention on Webb.

  “What was he doin’ here?”

  “He wanted to borrow your jail for me. Needed sleep, I reckon.”

  The sheriff shifted his crutch a little. “Well, take them things off. You can’t drag him around.” He paused. “What’d he want of you?”

  Webb grinned. “He had a great big sack he wanted me to hold.”

  “For what?”

  “About two years back there was a train robbery over south of Bull Foot in Wintering County.”

  “I remember it.”

  “I was ridin’ the train. When the law couldn’t find the outfit that did it, they claimed it was an inside job. Said so on the reward posters.” Webb gestured over east. “I was workin’ across the desert over yonder. One day this McWilliams shows up with a bench warrant. So I’m here.”

  “But this ain’t Wintering County,” the sheriff said gently, “so take ’em off.”

  When Webb was free of the handcuffs, the sheriff signaled him to follow and headed across the street for the bank.

  As they were mounting the steps, the sheriff noted the man standing in the door and he grunted. The man gestured inside with his thumb and said in a quiet snarl, which barely changed the hard angle of his face:

  “There it is, Wardecker. Patton’s dead, and the bank’s cleaned—to the last dollar.”

  He had a natural truculence of speech and manner that goes with a small man, but it went beyond that. Small, hardbitten, with a tight, tough, grizzled face, the man spoke as if he had been waiting for this moment to blame the sheriff for this and a hundred other things that rankled him. He was dressed in the clothes of cattleland, but with a difference, Webb saw. The gun on his hip was pearl-handled with gold inlay; his boots were tooled leather, handsewn; his trousers of a cloth that was rich and expensive, if soiled. The only untidy thing about him was his greasy Stetson, battered and almost ragged, and his shirt, blue and worn and patched. His stance, erect, belligerent, was without the gentleness that his graying hair would indicate.

  He made a small, impotent gesture of wrath as he finished speaking.

  “Sure,” Sheriff Wardecker said. “They knew their business.”

  “Do something, man!” the smaller man exploded.

  The sheriff turned a speculative gaze on him. “There’s a posse not three minutes behind ’em, Buck. You got a horse, haven’t you?”

  “Which way’d they go?”

  “South,” the sheriff said quietly, wryly. “They’re headin’ for Wintering County, you can bet. And once they cross the line, they’ll be safe.”

  The small man said in quiet fury, “Wintering County! Sure! Safe as a church! All they got to do is walk right in under the nose of our law and clean us out, then jump over into Wintering.” He glared up at the sheriff, his jaw outthrust, his face flushed with anger.

  “This feud wasn’t of my makin’, Buck,” the sheriff said. He turned and walked into the bank, Webb following him. The story of the robbery was there for anyone to read. Behind the high counter just outside the wire cashier’s cage, a middle-aged, heavy man lay sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood. Standing against the wall was a pale young man, watching them. Beside the desk was a coil of rope. Inside the wire cage, against the back wall, the safe door was open, and on the floor around it was a scattering of papers.

  The little man said from beside Webb, “I was talkin’ to Patton when this holdup fella walked in and poked a gun in my back, and told Patton what he wanted. I went for my gun, when he slugged me from behind. Patton went for his, too. This hardcase shot him. He had a coil of rope with him, aimin’ to tie Poole here up, but after the shot, he jumped
the counter and slugged Poole, too. But he took his time with the safe. Cleaned it out.”

  The sheriff nodded and said to the clerk, “You better go get a drink of whisky, son, then get some help and take Patton home.”

  It was a gesture of finality that seemed to turn the small man’s anger into a sort of bleak despair. He turned away from the sight and said to Wardecker, “Well, this’ll mean the ruin of a good part of the county.”

  “How much was took?”

  “Poole says in the neighborhood of seventy-five thousand.”

  “Uh-huh,” Wardecker said softly. “Fifty families of us cleaned out because we got a county next to us that won’t lift a hand to help us and will likely be glad because it happened.” He regarded the smaller man quizzically. “This here row comes to about what I claimed it would, don’t it, Buck?”

  Buck Tolleston recaptured some of his anger.

  “I’ve listened to that preachin’ for ten years, “Wardecker! But damned if I’ll listen to it now!”

  “Sure,” Wardecker said mildly. For a moment Tolleston glared at him, and then his gaze swiveled to Webb. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded savagely.

  “Wait a minute,” the sheriff said. He told Tolleston about Webb, and about the shooting of McWilliams.

  “And you never saw this comin’?” Tolleston asked Webb slowly. “You was out there on the street, and rode right past those hardcases and didn’t see it?”

  “I saw it,” Webb said coldly. “Hell, anyone with eyes could have.”

  “And you never done nothin’?”

  “Like what?”

  “Holler, shoot, anything to bust it up!” Tolleston said hotly.

  “I was handcuffed to this lawman,” Webb said slowly. “If I’d opened my mouth, I’d of got it four ways.”

  Tolleston’s mouth sagged in amazement, and Webb could almost read what was passing through his mind. For Tolleston, had he been in Webb’s place, would have shouted a warning and been killed for his pains, and it would have been instinctive, unheeding of danger, an act of a terrier who is bred to fight and die. The little man turned to the sheriff. “You heard that, Will?”

 
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