CHAPTER TWO

shooter bullet

by Gary Jacobson

animatedflame

      Ringing! Constant ringing in my ears -- wouldn't stop. A dull ache made my head feel like a swollen gourd. Buzzing flies tickled my nose. I wrinkled it, curling my lips in irritation, trying to brush them away. But my hands wouldn't work. Something hurt -- hurt all over. Tormented breathing came in hard snorts. Sticky dry dust caked my mouth, and clogged my nose. My eyes throbbed, feeling like jelly, fat and bloated -- bursting. Even when I pushed them wide I couldn't see through the sticky glue in them, like I'd spent the night in the stable.

      Rolling and jogging, I tried to throw up, but racked, and couldn't -- couldn't. The pain in my head felt like jumbled cobwebs thick with confusion binding me tightly. I couldn't move, fighting to escape my stifling restraints, wrenching, jerking -- suddenly free -- awake to pain with a thousand fingers. It reached into every part of me. It ran into every crack and chink of me -- bouncing around my head. I tried to look, to see, but something heavy, something lumpy, lay on me, pushing me into the flanks of a horse.

      "A horse...Oh my God, it's Bleu," I cried, hurting with the echoe of a thousand tongues. Words resounded through my head, hopping and jumping, rebounding from one side to the other.

      My eyes opened. Someone's clammy cheek pressed against my chin. I tasted death in the smell of the stiff, stringy hair, matted with blood, sweat, and dust. The smell of it caught in my throat. I pulled back so I could see, and stared into brother Jed's vacant, unseeing eyes. "No...no," I screamed, and my stomach retched, erupting into savage, violent shaking. I struggled to break the bonds binding me to my dead brother, and suddenly I was dumped on the ground with Jed's body on top of me.

      "Hey Brette," the surly stranger leading Bleu roared, "the Day cub's roused hisself up'ns kickin' agin'is traces." The man with bulging pig-eyes, and a perverted smile quivering with grisly anticipation at my struggles, clearly enjoyed the pain he saw. I recognized him as the one I'd given a taste of blue-steel in Rimrock. "We've lost them Rimrock riders, Brette," he said. "Let's have some fun with'im, what say?"

      The lead stranger in the dark frock coat reined in his horse, nudging it to face me. I remember him. A stringy shock of raven-black hair hung under his stove pipe hat, and a handlebar moustache tugged at the corners of stringy lips. I'd seen that same intense, driven look in one of them books my maw'd give me of a man in armor on a crusade'r quest, or something. This here feller had a dogged look in his eye like that.

      His cruel eyes danced wild-eyed like a drunken cowboy, but something more. I squirmed when his cutting look layed me open like a sharp knife, and I swear I felt him in me. I knowed at once from the look of them eyes that he was quite mad, full of hisself with conceit like the Devil hisself. Oh yes, I remember him. His face was permanently burned into my memory.

      Right then and there I made a decision. No such could make me die -- not now! I wouldn't give them the satisfaction. Paying attention's something I had to make myself do. I had to do it. I had to listen, watch, learn everything about these killers, if I ever hoped to get out alive.

      Brette, was obviously the leader. I knew it from the way pig-eyes bootlicked and groveled to'm, strutting when he held hisself. "Not now, Duchey, not now," Brette sighed like Duchey had offended his dignity, patronizingly, above it all. "The hour of divine retribution is not yet, my humble friend," Brette said with a scornful, coddling look to the one I'd pistol whipped. In his own eyes he was better born and higher bred, plainly post'ring and calculat'n to rankle Duchey. He enjoyed sticking the knife in, giving it a twist a'purpose, reminding Duchey of his low station, showing his irritation at the lesser, crude man he must ride with.

      Duchey didn't seem to notice the slight insult. "He sure do look a sight, don't he now," he whooped.

      Brette dismounted, and stepped astraddle me for a moment, hovering, before pushing me onto my back with his dusty boot, grinding his heel into my neck like a stink bug. His eyes looked like stony cold lakes of fire that could see right through you. I writhed and gasped until I ceased struggling, breathing, caring. Only then did Brette let up.

      "Look't those white, buggy eyes," brayed Duchey. "I betcha he ain't never seen his brother up close like'at before. Come on Brette, want I should finish'im off now?" he said hopefully, gun drawn and ready, waiting only for a sign.

      Brette raised his hands to the mounted man on the other side, ignoring Duchey. "'Vic'try is ours,' sayeth the Lord of hosts," he said. "Hallelujah!"

      "Why in tarnation don't you kill'm Brette?" Duchey whined. "Want I should do it for ya?" he asked yet again. But still Brette didn't answer. Duchey took the prod with all the grace of a spur in the gut, swallowing hard, opening his mouth to speak, snivelling like a stuck hog. But what could he say? He turned to look down the back trail, pretending to hear something.

      Brette saw him -- looked uptrail too, but seeing nothing, smiled with satisfaction that he'd again shown who's boss. "This boy's gotta pay the price of atonement, for thus the Lord hath commanded me," Brette said, his intense bright eyes flickering.

      Duchey puckered as he leaned closer over my head, and said, "Hear that whelp...you're gonna die," and sucked on his tongue at the mouth watering thought of it. "It's commanded."

      Brette stood waving his finger, like addressing a congregation from a pulpit, "This bohemian spirit's got to make divine retribution for the sins of his wicked generation. Yea verily, the sins of his wanton fathers cry out for atonement...praise the Lord, amen." He spat out the words like bullets from a shooter, without thought or pity, and without mercy for the creature sucking life underfoot.

      "That Day pups worth no more to us alive than dead," Duchey whined. "Whatta ya say Brette, huh? I'll make him see the light...let me do it? Want I should do it for ya, Brette?"

      "Stand him up Posey," Brette rasped to the third man still astride his horse and sitting passively, still ignoring Duchey. I snuck a look at the man, though I knew it best to look dead, or close to it. Posey made me to think of a coiled snake ready to strike at the slightest poke -- half-breed injun by the look. His eyes rendered nothing of what lay within, blank as mirrors, dark and hard.

      Brette stepped over to face me nose to nose when Posey yanked me to my feet. I smelled the preachers putrid, sour breath, and the strong smell of whiskey. He drew a large buffalo skinning knife from his belt scabbard, his mouth quivering like tight rawhide pulled into a depraved grin. He raised the silver blade till it poked the point of my neck, and with a sadistic smile, caressed my skin with the rough skinning edge. He traced down my chest to the pit of my stomach with the knife, skinning me in his mind, and I drew back till I could go no further.

      "Might's well stick't in, mister. I won't be beggin'."

      "Oh, the Day cub can talk, can he," smirked Duchey. "Go on Brette, give it to'im...giv't a twist."

      Brette looked with contempt at pig-eyes, then turned his hate-filled eyes to me, snarling like a mad dog. "Prep-a-r-e to meet your God," he snapped, and plunged the knife with a lightning thrust. I steeled fer't, my flesh crawling as I felt the knife ram in and twist in me.

      I went limp -- but he hadn't killed me -- he hadn't killed me, I thought with surprise. He cut the ropes binding me to Jed, and I felt my brothers weight give way and slump to the ground. Sickened with the closeness of death, I heaved my load.

      "Surprised I didn't kill you kid?" Brette's thin lips quivered, laughing a nervous, deranged laugh as he dodged the stinking guts retching out of my mouth, but his arrogance built to anger when he saw his boot had caught a fleck of my throw up. His voice cracked hoarsely with immense anger, snarling and hissing like a rattlesnake who's just bitten something, with cold eyes watching it shrivel and die.

      "I am the hand of the Almighty," he ranted, "and like unto the giver of life I too can be magnanimous. I too can be forgiving, taking or giving as I see fit. I didn't kill you this time because I didn't have too, but don't read my benevolent mercy wrong, you decadent whelp. This isn't your lucky day," he said, with a sickly sweet smile. "No indeed," he said, soft as the summer wind blowing over the prairie, his voice growing distant like the far off call of a hawk with a mouse in his talons, "this isn't your lucky day. You degenerate serpent," he laughed wickedly, uproariously, "you'll wish you were dead before it's through."

      "I don't be a likin't Brette," Duchey complained. "Tain't neat...and I ain't no baby sitter."

      Brette turned slow, and Duchey saw the trembling lips grow ever tighter. Death was in the eye of the preacher. "I said the kid don't get killed today, Duchey. Got any objections?" Brette cooed, his hands sliding on his belt till they rested a hair above fancy, pearl-handled revolvers. Duchey saw them too, and slid his own hands back from the dangerous position near his side and onto his saddle horn.

      "No, you're the boss, Brette," he muttered, "whatever you say." He knew better than to cross his boss when he had that look. Lifting his worn stetson, beaten shapeless from age, Duchey wiped his sweating forehead with the chalky leather sleeve of his jacket, pausing nervously. "I only thought cause he killed Red back there..."

      "It's thinking like that will get you killed, Duchey," Brette smiled tightly, purring like a cat about to pounce on a rat. "Mark my words, you really ought to be more careful."

      "I just thought that..."

      "Duchey, Duchey, Duchey," Brette sneered smugly, "no need troubling yourself none doing things you don't do well. I'll do the thinking in this outfit."

      Duchey turned away shaking, on the verge of losing control. Brette pointed to a stand of trees, signaling Posey to tie me up there, and watched as Posey wrestled my limp form to a tree.

      Posey threw a rope over a branch, and tying it to my hands, stretched me skyward. Then, he tied off my feet to a stake. All the time Brette kept Duchey hobbled with steel braided rope eyes, his gun hand ever poised and ever ready.

      "Red deserved to die," Brette said, finally acknowledging Duchey. "Red got his own self kilt. He knew better than to go tomcatting before he finished his job...but would he listen?"

      Duchey opened his mouth to speak, but before he could get a word out, Brette rolled his eyes. "Tch, tch, tch, Red was like a good right arm, that severed from me, now I must smite the offender with my good left hand...that's Posey. Praise be the Lord! Or I must kick the transgressor in the groin with my foot, my dear, loyal Duchey. You are loyal, aren't you Duchey?"

      No, I reckon Brette didn't trust Duchey a lick. Brette knew as well as Duchey that five thousand dollars in bounty rode on those horses from Rimrock, a bounty anyone could collect if they brought the bodies to the Buffalo Mesa sheriff. Duchey would kill for that. Brette knew too, Duchey had figured how much further it'd go split two ways rather than three.

      Duchey wheeled his horse in front of me, kicking up dust in my face as he swung down. Thrusting his chest against me and pushing my chin up hard with a sweaty fist, he looked me in the eye. "You comfy, Day cub?" he asked with an evil sneer, his hands tight on my jaw. He could see Brette by the fire washing trail dust down with hot coffee, staring a hole right through him. Seeing Brette watch him riled Duchey even more. "Ya should be grateful to Posey stringin'ya up lik'at, cause if it was me, I'd as soon put'ya in the ground." He spit a wad of tobacco in brette's direction, but carefully aimed to fall short, Brette pretended not to notice it.

      Duchey wanted to kill me in the worst way, I knowed it. He wanted to kill me, if for no other reason than to get at Brette. Duchey jerked the ropes stretching me tighter, hissing like a diamondback rattler that'd just been stomped on. "This won't kill'ya Day cub. But it sure as hell will take the fight outta you. I see you so much's trying to loosen them ropes...it'll pleasure me to stick a knife betwixt your ribs."

      "Who are they?" I kept asking myself in my agony. Then I remembered my father spitting the names out -- Brette, Duchey, Posey -- as if the very sound was distasteful.

      Brette saw my eyes on him, and snickered scornfully, "Trying to figure who we be boy, you spawn of the unrighteous iniquitors, you unholy seed of Satan." He sauntered over to stand by Duchey, who face to face with Brette, backed down again. Passing to the fire, Duchey grabbed the coffee pot, pouring with an angry jerk, and yelling when the scalding coffee spilled on him.

      Brette smiled smugly, as if Duchey's yell was music to his ears. "I'll tell you who we are, you sinful prodigal's son. I'll tell you so you shall better know the might and power of he who has conquered your wicked spirit, oh ye corrupt minion of the ruler of darkness."

      "Yea, you tell'm" Duchey said angrily, "you parsimonious sack'a..." but before he could go too far he saw Brette's hand again hovering over his guns, and turned away again to set down on a rock by the fire.

      "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted," Brette cooed condescendingly, "all that was done, was done by the will of the almighty hand of the Lord. God has smitten you with the sword of truth and righteousness wielded by his goodly servants. We have this day purged the earth of the sinful iniquities of the unholy carrion you call kin."

      "We purged'm to hell," Duchey laughed mockingly.

      Lifting his head to the heavens, Brette paused, closing his eyes. "All adoration and thanksgiving be to him that sent me," he said, and began to recite: "As an officer with the Confederate Army during the war, captured and tortured egregiously in a Union prison, I saw the saving light...praise the Lord. I looked like death incarnate, forced to work like a dog and eat like a rat, rotting and sweltering for two years.

      Duchey smirked, "Looks a heap better now, don't he."

      Brette clasped hands and looked heavenward, ignoring Duchey. "Oh why hast thou forsaken me, oh Lord, I cried neverending, but the Lord, my salvation, my light and my life, prepared me amidst fleshly suffering for his holy work. Hosanna to his name, the most high anointed my feet for his servitude. When the devil's minions carted my earthly body to a mass grave amid the stinking refuse of deteriorating flesh and cankerous legions, the omnipotent hand of the Lord plucked me up. Yea, though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, I feared no evil. The Lord, my shepherd, my rod and my staff, he comforteth me. He makes me to lie down in the house of mine enemies for his namesake. He restoreth my soul...praise to the Lord."

      "And his bounty pay ain't none too shabby neither," whooped Duchey, smacking his lips.

      "Ignore the buffoon, I admonish you," Brette said. "He knows not what he says, for the bounty money is but a Godsend to further the work, manna of the Almighty to send forth laborers unto the harvest."

      "Yea sure," Duchey bellowed, "and the more money't sends, us the better I like't."

      Brette again raised his eyes heavenward, and continued. "When I returned home after the war to find my family dead, and servants of Satan in my home..."

      "Tell'm what you did," Duchey said. "This'ere be my fav-o-rite part of the story."

      Brette paused but a moment, "I admonish you, dear Duchey, do not tax the chosen servant of the Lord. Do not carry this vexation too far, I warn thee."

      Turning to me, again shrouded in an unworldly mood of his own, he continued. "I sent them to glory in the body of christ. Lo, they had reaped the fiery furnace of his heavenly reward, sowing the whirlwind in dominions of their most unholy master, Lucifer. My home desecrated, I saved those lost souls from pernicious doctrines and designs of the devil, and paid heed to the call from the Lord of hosts to come west."

      "Lucky for the west," Duchey murmured.

      "Here I found the field ripe, already to harvest. My gun is the Lord's sword of righteousness...it's hot lead his baptism by fire and spirit to cleanse the iniquitors."

      "When he cleanses you," Duchey laughed, drawing a withering look from Brette, "you best believe, you stay cleansed."

      Brette glared menacingly. "My good friend here is proof positive the Lord works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform. Yea verily, Duchey was cut from different cloth by the master tailor, the better to usher in His righteous kingdom."

      "Yea, I'm a miracle alright," Duchey squinted... "verily."

      Brette nodded, not catching the sarcasm. "Born nameless, Duchey's mother sold her soul as a lowly saloon harlot, having the good sense to die the moment Duchey emerged upon the earth. His father, a cowboy trailing cattle to Dodge, never knew he was a father. The girls at Duchey's Strand, a saloon and gaming house where his mother worked, raised the nameless bastard. His master, as he delighted to call himself, was Luis "Duchey" Argent, the owner of Duchey's Strand. Under his able tutorage, the young man progressed from cleaning barroom spit, vomit, blood and dirt, to a brawling, cheating, whoremonger."

      "An loving every bless'd minute of't, thank'ya kindly," Duchey bowed mockingly.

      "Duchey knows every dirty trick, and has a complete lack of morals. But my 'calling' makes of such men a necessity. Sometimes when you go into the dirty coal cellar, you need someone not afraid of getting down and dirty to root it out for you. Duchey has that willingness. He'll ride right up to the pits of Hell if the money's good enough...but of such is the Kingdom of God."

      "You name the game, I'll play it," smiled Duchey tauntingly.

      "Duchey has not chosen God," Brette chanted, "but God has chosen Duchey...for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and the laborers are few in the vineyard's of the Lord."

      Duchey slurped, "love them Vineyards."

      "He can be a burden," Brette glared at his cohort, "but I prayed mightily to the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers sufficient to do his work. When Duchey accosted me asking for money in Abilene, The Holy Ghost made a sign unto me that this 'Watchman of the Lord,' would indeed do his bidding."

      "I saw'is fancy coat'n them pearl handled revolvers," Duchey brayed, "and figured't he had it't give."

      "Yea verily," Brette nodded, "The Lord of heaven and earth commanded, 'Separate me Duchey for the work whereunto I have called him. How beautiful shall be the feet of him for my righteousness sake.'"

      "That's it," Duchey wailed, chortling and sticking his feet in the air. "Yea ver-i-ly, I got beee-yooo-tiful feet."

      "Careful lest you blaspheme," Brette warned, "for the glorious Lord smites those not on his side, yea verily. Heed now the writing of the Lord of Heaven and Earth, 'I choose the base of the world despised of men to wear my armor of divine righteousness and to wield my sword of truth.' Lo, I said unto him, Duchey, follow me...and he did arise, and followed me."

      "Sure I followed, you sanctimonious buzz'rd bait," Duchey scoffed. "You told me how I could lay my hands on easy money. Didn't learn 'bout the Lord'n the vin'yards till later."

      Lowering his eyes, Brette once again looked at me slumping from the tree, then over to the third bounty hunter. "That one strikes fear in even the most vile son's of perdition," he said, signaling to Posey. "He makes brave men quiver in fear of the mere mention of my name."

      "They tremble with a feeling akin to a porcupine eating your innards," Duchey said. "The onliest diff'rance, we're predictable. Whether we kill'ya with holy dignity, or because it pleasures us, but Posey's not. Tell'm 'bout the three't threw the breed out of a saloon down on the Pecos," Duchey guffawed, but too overanxious for Brette to get a word in, tore into the story himself. "The next morning they found three tongues'n three pair of ears tacked to the saloon door."

      "One earless misbegotten tried to take on Posey in a gunfight," Brette said, taking over the story, "another put a bullet through his own head, and the third became a raving madman. Everlastingly and eternally more, he babbled hogwash, and perpetually rolled his eyes."

      "Posey made it a point they remembered not to do that again," Duchey crowed. "He sure'nuff did."

      "Posey is no common criminal," Brette stuck a bony finger to the sky. "Neither crude nor vulgar in his ways is he, but direct unto the Lord's bidding...sent to take the words of the most high from my mouth, to bear warning from me. The trumpet of the Lord speaks with tongues and prophesies. It is written, 'no man may hear the divine word, only he that is anointed.'"

      "Don't heed his trumpet," Duchey whooped, "you're dead."

      "Yea verily," Brette said, "Posey enforces my will as testament of the savior, a laborer sent to prune the vineyards of the Lord."

      "And can that injun prune," whistled Duchey. "It's a pure-dee pleasure to sit back'n watch a skilled test-i-fier work."

      "My wayward son," Brette chastised in a deep and powerful voice, raising his arms and pounding an imaginary pulpit, "dost thou not remember the warning given in the good book? Do you recollect the warning whereby the Lord commands us to send forth the evil to die in their iniquities?"

      "How can I ever forget?" Duchey sniggered.

      "If the wicked die as the Lord hath commanded," Brette said, pretending not to hear the ridicule, "the sinners to the blood may come forth in the better day. God de-livers the souls of the damned in the thousand years of the judgement day. Thus, hereby, we save their eternal lives."

      Duchey grinned, "I almost forgot. We're killing them damned iniquitors to save'm...pruning'm to hell, as it were."

      "Lo, we dare not stray from the ordained task," Brette rebuked, raising his hands again to the heavens as if in prayer, "or it will be our blood required of His omnipotent hand." When Duchey mumbled something that sounded like swearing, Brette turned away to face him.

      Alone with a gutache that gnawed at me with a thousand teeth, I had long ago spilled out ever'thing in my stomach, and now it stunk in my nostrils. My wrists stretched by the ropes burned like biting flames at first, but now I felt nothing. It was so hot I couldn't draw a breath. I felt myself giving in to the pain. It was so easy to just let go and float into nothingness. Everything was white, washed out. Is this how it is at the end? I wondered. The black nothingness was so sweet, the end of the hurting so near -- so near.

      But no, I won't give in. I can't let it happen. I've got to fight to stay awake -- I have to. A tear rolled down my cheek as I thought of the way things were, my father and brothers still strapped to the horses. I owe it to them. I can't sell out. I must fight the sweet darkness, for them, for my mother -- my sweet mother. I'd never see her again. They must pay. I'll make them pay -- I will.

      I felt like Hell, but I didn't wanna go there -- not today. I looked over to the bounty hunters. I wasn't as close to death's they thought. Life in Rimrock'd give me a purty tough hide, I reckon. But I didn't want them knowing it. If they thought I was near done for I'd be less of a threat to them, and better would be my chances. It weren't much of a hand, but it was the one dealt me, and if I want to keep my skin in one piece, I got to play it.

      They seemed pretty sure of themselves. Too sure. Pa used to tell me, "Sometimes when a man gets to thinkin' everything's rolling his way, he don't keep things tied up tight as he should. Then you got the advantage. When he let's his guard down, you gotta make your move. But you gotta be ready when it comes."

      Maybe there was help coming -- maybe there wasn't. I couldn't count on it. I need to keep my head about me, because I might just hafta bull outta this myownself. It don't matter if they be damned fools like Duchey, or all-mighty egotistical like Brette, or cunning killers like Posey...he's the one I gotta watch out for, but it amounts to the same thing. My escape has to come from that.

      An empty spot in my stomach's lapping up against dry bones'n giving me a powerful thirst. I have to keep my strength, so here goes..."Water," I begged. "Give me water?"

      "Well, I like'at," Duchey scowled, looking up from his coffee, "I surely do. Water?" he mockingly sneered. "The Day cub wants we should play wet nurse and give'im water," he hooted.

      "Water..."

      "The Devil's got your water, boy, and you're gonna have to get it from him."

      "Water..."

      Brette rolled over from his resting position on his poncho. "Go ahead and give him some."

      "What?"

      "Go ahead. You heard me...give him some," ordered Brette. Duchey saw that though his head still lay on his saddle, his hand rested dangerously on the butt of his fancy, pearl-handled revolver, unbuckled from his hip and by his side.

      Brette wasn't caring a wit about me, I had no notion about that. I could hang as far as he was concerned, and he wouldn't think no more on it than a feller stomping on a june bug. He just liked to rile the big bully to comfort himself, knowing Duchey was keeping in line, and still knew who was head man. I had to remember that.

     "Aw, I don't like it Brette," Duchey complained.

      "Do it! You heard me."

      Duchey was a cocky, hostile sort. He'd come to despise Brette, and someday would take pleasure in seeing him on the short end of a long rope. But he weren't fool enough to stand up to Brette. "He don't need no water. It'll only giv'im more fight." Still, Duchey stood, pretending to have a powerful need to look at Posey taking his turn at watch above camp, just another shadow in the fading light of day against a Mesquite tree high up on the butte.

      Brette lighted on his feet without taking his eyes off the big man with the pig-eyes. "I said, give the kid some water," he repeated, fingering the fancy handle of his gun.

      Pig-eyes stared at that hand, tense and primed for action. Not direct like, but he saw it, and his smile faded. He rested his coffee on a rock by the fire, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

      Uncomfortable silence rode the air.

      "Water...give me water," I broke the silence.

      Glad to break the showdown stare passing between him and Brette, Duchey wheeled, picked up his canteen and walked over. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Brette sit on the poncho against his saddle, still covering him with his eyes. Duchey grabbed a hank of my hair, jerking my sagging head back and jostling the canteen tauntingly above my dry, parched mouth. He said, "You want some water, boy, you're gonna have to ask me gentlemen-like for it."

      My dry tongue stretched thickly towards the coolness, sloshing inches away. "Water. Give me water," I grated in a whisper you could just barely hear.

      "Now that jest won't do," Duchey brayed. "That won't do at all. I said to ask me for it polite-like," he grinned, swishing the water in front of his tortured captives's face. "Hear it a'gurgling boy?"

      "Water."

      "Don't it sound fine, Day cub, so cool and good," he said, looking over at Brette.

      "Give him some," Brette ordered again.

      "I will, I will, but he's gonna hafta say something like...Oh, please give me some water Mr. Duchey, sir." He rolled the words over and over in his mouth as if he were enjoying the taste of them, yanking my hair tighter and pouring a couple of tortuous drops teasingly on the tip of my groping tongue. "Say it," he growled.

      "Water. Please give me some water," I pleaded.

      "You can do better than that," he badgered insistently. "Say it like you mean it. Say, I want some water please Mr. Duchey, sir."

      "please give me some water...please Mr. Duchey, sir," I gulped.

      "There, that's better. A whole heap better," Duchey grinned triumphantly at Brette, and shoved the mouth of the canteen roughly into my mouth. Most of the gushing water ran in dirty brown rivulets down my dusty face, and when I started choking he jerked the canteen away and walked back to the fire. Looking at Brette with a scornful smirk on his face, he unrolled his poncho, took off his boots and shook the trail dust out of them. "Gotta take keer of my be-e-yootiful feet, now don't I," he rumbled.

      Brette had rolled over and gone to sleep after the sun went down, and duchey was working at his toes by the light of the fire, when both men set up like they'd been jabbed with a prickly pear cactus. At first I couldn't hear anything, then, there it was again. It was the shrill, lonesome call of a desert coyote floating on the breeze.

      "That be Posey," Duchey whispered hoarsely, as the mournfully plaintive sound echoed again from up toward Posey's lookout. They sat motionless, but could hear only the normal night noises of the wind swishing through the trees, the spellbinding sound it makes when it stirs through the prairie grasses, and the shrill droning of the cicada. A real coyote howled far-off in answer to Posey's call, and the horses tethered in a sheltered draw running alongside the camp began to rustle and strain at their halters and move nervously about.

      Posey's darting shadow glided effortlessly through the head-high sagebrush like the summer wind, down the steep hillside to camp, entering in a half-crouching run. His expressionless bronze face glistened with sweat in the moonlight.

      "Eight to ten horsemen comin' fast from Rimrock way," Posey grunted, kicking dirt over the red embers of the fire without tone or emotion in his face, but with accusing eyes. "They've spotted our fire," he said simply, scooping up his bedroll and pouncing into the draw where the horses were.

      Brette pulled his buffalo knife from its scabbard after stamping his feet solidly into his boots. Hoisting his saddle on his left shoulder, he came at me and I shut my eyes, waiting for the certain feel of cold steel in my belly. But when the ropes hanging me to the tree gave way, I fell to the ground in a heavy lump like a busted sack of flour. I couldn't stand because there was no feeling in my legs. Brette grabbed the lariat hanging from his saddle, looped it around my neck and pulled me falling after him over the side of the draw.

      Duchey grabbed me as Brette yanked me down in the arroyo, and tossed me up on Bleu, snaking the end of the rope beneath the horses belly. Posey was mounted standing lookout at the head of the gorge, but came riding back crouched low over his horse's neck, pausing a split-shot. "They come," he grunted, then slapped leather down the draw away from the approaching riders.

      Brette was right behind him, but I heard Duchey cussing as he fumbled and struggled with the ropes. Then suddenly, Duchey froze. Horse's hooves pounded into camp above the gully.

      "Hey Bob. Here's their camp over here," called a rider to the men spread over the hill.

      "T'would appear they've been'ere recent like," said another.

      "Fires still hot," added a third.

      "Reckon they hain't been gone more'n ten minutes'r so," shouted another.

      Duchey drew his shooter with his right hand, pulling himself onto his mount with his left. Digging his spurs deep into his horse's gut, he tore off down the ravine trailing Old Bleu.

      "There goes one of'm," a man shouted, and his pistol spat fire at the vanishing shadow.

      "Let's get after'im," another said, wheeling his horse around.

      "Hold on a gol-darned minute," barked a commanding voice. "It's dark now, so let's don't go a'doing nuthin foolish. We're gonna hafta do this thing right, or we'll all end up as dead as Ben Day and his sons. Frank, Brad, Currie, come with me, and we'll circle around them over the hill. Bart, you and the rest of the boys slap leather after'm. Now, let's go," he shouted as he spurred his horse up the hill.

      I was more dead than alive, yanked to my senses by the churning flanks of Old bleu, and the gunfire thicker'n flies in the air around us. I knew if'n I was to escape, it had to be now or I prob'ly wouldn't see the sunrise. Bucking and pulling, I felt Duchey's hurriedly tied knots unravel and give way, dumping me in a rolling heap on the stone and sand of the dry river bank. The fall knocked the breath out of me, but I kept on rolling behind a sagebrush.

      Duchey reined up hard, wheeling his horse around to pick me up, but the sound of pounding hooves closing in stopped him short. He leveled his gun at my still form lying like a dead jackrabbit behindst a sagebrush, his horse rearing and pawing the air with its hooves.

      Three shots slapped the night air, echoing down the dry gulch like rolling thunder. Duchey saw the body jump, then quiver as each shot found its mark. Grinning, he turned, striking his horse on the rump with the smoking barrel of his 45, and disappeared down the draw.


Chapter Three CHAPTER THREE