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by Luke Short
Category: Suspense/Thriller/Historical Fiction
Description: Getting the gold was easy--as easy as riding his horse up that mountain. But getting down again was another story. Set up by his partner, ambushed by his ally, left for dead in an avalanche, Poco St. Vrain had a long trail ahead. He had to recover the gold and clear his name. To do that meant tracking down not one gang of desperadoes but two. It would take a good horse, a fast gun, and the steady nerve of a ... BOLD RIDER!
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks, 1938
eBookwise Release Date: December 2009
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [280 KB]
Reading time: 183-257 min.
Back and forth in the rocky valley of Polvosa a lazy dry wind shuttled. Starting from the south slope in a tall and invisible funnel, it idled down to the valley floor, rolled across the railroad spur that led into Christian City, flattened out into a ground sweep, and rode a curling plume of dirt and tumble weeds into the town.
Getting a grip on the powdered dust of the wide main street, it raised a tall dust devil which it dragged the length of the town. Skittering down the shallow canyon between the weathered falsefront buildings, it forced the hipshot saddled horses at the tie rails to saw over on the other hip and close their eyes. It stirred the batwing door of the Sunflower Saloon, caromed off the next buildings and swept out of town and over the bridge.
The stream beneath the plank bridge it ignored and raced up the north slope of the valley in a whistling gust. Almost to the summit it was nearing the road when a horseman at a hard gallop topped the ridge, and in another moment slanted down into its blinding maelstrom of driven sand.
He was through it in two seconds, but when he emerged he was hatless. He did not even look back. The leggy sorrel under him was patched with sweat and dust, and worked with a kind of coasting weariness as he took the downgrade to the bridge. Approaching the thick timber of the bridge, the rider pulled the sorrel into a trot and reined off the road to the river bank.
It was a steep slope down, perhaps twelve feet.
The rider said, "Take it."
The sorrel yawed a couple of times, then squatted on his haunches, spread his forelegs and went over in a rush of small rock and dirt that slopped into the shallow creek on the heel of the rocketing splash. The weight of a bigger man would have foundered the sorrel, but it pulled out of the slide shaking its head and answered to the rein that guided it into the black block of shadow under the bridge.
Stopped, the sorrel shook its head and lowered it to drink, and it got two mouthfuls before it was pulled up.
"Easy," the rider said gently.
Observed now, there was a curious contradiction in this man. He could hear the thundering racket of many horses coming down the hardpacked hill road he had just left and he looked at his small browned hand holding the reins where a dribble of dust was already sifting down from the vibrating bridge planks above him. Yet there was no excitement, no relief in his eyes, in his face. He was young, under middle height, and now he stretched and yawned with an indolent economy of movement that was as clean and alert and contained as a cat's. Finished, he began unbuttoning the gaudy red shirt he wore. He pulled the tails out of his trousers just as the thunder hit the bridge above, and even then he did not pause, only said, "Steady," to his sorrel while he took off his shirt.
When he twisted around in the saddle to untie his lean duffle bag, the pennants of dust had powdered his thick chestnut hair and shoulders. He yawned again. Naked from the waist up now, he was again a contradiction, for he looked larger, far solider. His bones were small, his shoulders capped with a deep roll of muscle that coiled and sawed with every finger movement. The chest was deep, high, a dead white against the tanned V of his neck which itself was scarcely darker than his still, lean, smooth face. There was a kind of brooding and somnolent arrogance in his face, too, as if all this he was doing and was about to do was a faintly unpleasant task. His eyes, dark to blackness and set deep and wide in his skull, were pleasantly mocking, amused.
From his bag he drew out a clean blue shirt and put it on. As soon as it was buttoned, he stuffed the red shirt in the bag and tied the bag behind the cantle.
Now he said again to the sorrel, "Steady," and drew his feet from the stirrups. Gingerly he stood up on the saddle and reached for a bridge beam overhead. Once he had steadied himself, he used his free hand to tuck in his shirttail, to ram it down past the shell belt and sagging holster from which a worn cedar-handled Colt jutted.
Satisfied, he put his other hand on the bridge beam and swung clear of the saddle. He spoke to the horse which turned upstream and began walking the creek. Soon it was lost from sight around the bend.
Left hanging, the man did a handover to the edge of the bridge where this beam jutted out to form a support for the railing.
Then he swung himself up and looked down the road. In the street of the town a hundred yards down the road, he could see the blue uniforms of the cavalry troop still mounted. He smiled fleetingly and sat down on the beam jut again and built a cigarette with deft, absent fingers. He had smoked it down when he heard again the thunder of the horses approaching.
Smashing out the cigarette, he put the butt in his shirt pocket, then swung down again under the bridge, travelled the beam a yard, then swung up again in the space between the joist and planks.
This time the horses pulled up on the bridge.
A man's voice said suddenly, "Look at that bank, Lieutenant!"
"Took to the water, huh?" another man said gruffly. "All right, we'll do the same."
"That's a hell of a drop," the first man said.
There was a pause in the conversation, then the lieutenant said, "Take the other bank. It flattens out down there forty yards or so each way."
"Up or down?"
"We'll split. Take half the men, Sergeant. Put at least two in the creek and the rest of you ride the bank. I'll do the same."
"Yes, sir. How far?"
"Till you get him," the lieutenant said curtly.
There was more thunder of horses turning around on the planks. The ten troopers split and half went east, the other half west, some in the creek, the others riding the bank.
As soon as they were out of sight, the slight figure swung up onto the bridge and headed for town, brushing his clothes off with quick, flicking, absent movements.
There was no haste in his walk; neither was there any halting stiffness likely to be bred by the high heels of his neat halfboots and by hours in the saddle.
Looking up he saw there was no unusual movement of people on the main street, which indicated the townsfolk did not share the army's joy of pursuit. He built another cigarette and lighted it just as he hit the boardwalk of town.
Shouldering through the doors of the Sunflower Saloon, he walked straight to the bar. The room was not crowded, a dozen men at the gambling tables, four or five at the bar. All talk, even the click of poker chips, ceased at his entrance. The fat and placid-looking bartender saw him, smiled uneasily, and said, "Just a moment, Poco."
He climbed up on the back bar, reached up above the mirror and took down a large picture of a nude woman stretched languorously and astonishingly on a vista of green lawn. He put the picture under the bar and said diffidently in the continuing silence, "I've kep' it from bein' shot up so far. What'll it be?"
"Beer," the slight man said, and added, "Did the army leave a hat here?"
The bartender nodded quickly and looked up at him. "Oh, so you're the--"
"Yes," the man cut in in a soft voice. "The hat."
The barkeep went up front and came back with a worn, dust-colored Stetson which he tendered the small man. About to speak, the bartender glanced over the man's shoulder and saw a puncher heading stealthily for the door.
"You," the barkeep called.
The puncher stopped dead in his tracks and looked guiltily at the barkeep.
"If you tell the marshal he's here," the bartender said slowly, "you'll pay for every smashed mirror and window and chair in the bar. And if I got anything to say about it, you'll pay for the marshal's buryin' too."
"Not me," the puncher said quickly, earnestly. "Hell, all I want to do is get out of town."
The slight man's gaze sought the puncher's in the mirror. "Sit down," he drawled quietly. "Nothing's going to happen."
"Yes, sir," the puncher said and tiptoed back to his seat.
The slight man sipped his beer when it came, his eyes dreamy, indifferent. The sodden silence he ignored, as if used to it. But he was not so unobserving that he missed the movement behind him when a man got up from a poker table and crossed to the bar beside him.
This man was tall, made taller by the gambler's black frockcoat which he wore. He ordered a bourbon and looked at the slight man, and over his thin, handsome and amiable face came an amused look. Under the wide black mustache, he smiled a little. "Hello, Poco. Trouble?"
"No," the slight man said.
"You took long enough," the gambler growled.
Poco said nothing, only studied the man in the mirror. Two-Way Hornbeck, at present dressed in the tradition of only one of his dozen callings, was probably the royalty of riff-raff. Most towns in the southwest knew him, usually to their sorrow and his advantage. Suave, dark of face, hard of eye, ready of smile, he had the agreeable and expansive presence of the generous rich. Years sat on him with such grace that Poco had never tried to guess his age, but had merely accepted him as permanent.
Two-Way accepted Poco's scrutiny with a smile. "I've got a room upstairs. Ten's the number. Go on up."
"Go 'way," Poco said gently.
Two-Way scowled. "Go on up. I've been waiting for--"
"Go 'way," Poco said, without even looking at him.
Two-Way backed off and returned to his table. Poco saw him writing something on a slip of paper, then he called the bartender for drinks. In another moment the bartender laid a note on the bar in front of Poco. Poco drew a match out of his pocket, struck it, touched it to the unread note and dropped it burning into a spittoon. He finished his beer and went out.
Stopping in front of the batwing doors, he looked up and down the street, surveying the town. There was no interest in his still face, nothing except a mild and patient curiosity. He was wondering if his sorrel had had time enough to circle back to the feed stable.
A voice from behind him said, "A quarter of a million dollars. How does it sound?"
Poco St. Vrain turned slowly. Two-Way Hornbeck was standing beside him, smiling.
Poco said gently, flatly, "Have I got to cuff you?"
Under his gaze, Two-Way's smile faded. He took a step to the rear until his back was against one of the batwing doors. "Now listen, Poco. Hear it out, anyway," he pleaded softly. "Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars."
Poco uncrossed his arms and rubbed his side with one hand. When his fingers crossed the shellbelt above the holster, Two-Way dived inside the saloon.
Poco turned and walked toward the livery stable, proclaimed so by a huge sign. He was about to swing under the tie-rail and cross to it when he saw three men come down off the hotel porch and turn his way. He paused, hands on hips, watching them.
They were engaged in conversation, two of the men listening to the rumbling, perorated speech of the man in the middle. He was a vast man, a head taller than the two tall punchers at his side, clothed in a baggy and shapeless black suit that fitted him like the skin of a bear. Under his black Stetson his white hair tufted out. Everything about him bespoke dominance, power, even to the polite attentiveness of the men listening to him.
Poco watched their approach, standing motionless himself, a faint unpleasant smile on his face.
In the midst of his speech, the big man looked up, and when he saw Poco he stopped, and his talk trailed off. The two punchers looked up. When they saw Poco their faces were utterly readable. They stepped away from their companion and waited. One of them licked his lips.
The big man's face lost its look of assurance.
"Get off the walk, McCandless," Poco drawled gently. "Can't you see I'm on it?"
Under McCandless's coat twin shellbelts were crossed, dragged slanting by his guns. But it was as if he were unaware he had them.
He said, "Is this it, St. Vrain?" and he could not fight out the torment in his voice.
"Not yet, Abe. Get off the walk."
McCandless stopped. Poco swung under the hitchrack and headed down and across the street for the livery stable. McCandless, his two men trailing him, came out into the road. Poco glanced at them briefly, unsmiling, and went his way. McCandless and his two companions stepped up on the walk where Poco had been standing. The big man paused, looked back at Poco's vanishing figure and drew a handkerchief from his hip pocket, with which he wiped his face thoroughly, his hands a little unsteady.
An old man sat in a backtilted chair just inside the arch of the feed stable.
Poco asked him, "Did a saddled sorrel drift in here?"
The man nodded. "He yours?"
Poco nodded too.
"He's branded Bullseye on the left hip."
"So's a lot of horses."
Poco shifted to the other foot. "He tied?"
"No. I unsaddled him and rubbed him down and watered and fed him. He's a good horse. Prove he's yours."
Poco whistled a low note twice. In a moment the sorrel walked out of the gloom of the stall toward him.
"Go back," Poco said.
The sorrel turned and went back.
"What do I owe you?" Poco said.
The old man told him, chuckling over his own contrariness. Poco gave him a coin and he went in to change it. Poco stepped out into the sun, letting it warm his back.
Then he heard someone say, "Just listen to me, Poco. Just listen. A quarter million dollars. Think of it!"
Poco started to turn when the voice, Two-Way's voice, said, "Stand still, you damn fool! I've got a gun on you. You've got to listen."
Still Poco turned. Two-Way was just inside the door, his back to a stall partition, a gun in his unsteady hand.
Poco walked slowly over to him and reached out and took the gun and dropped it on the floor, and there was no surprise or anger in his face, only impatience.
"When you do that to me, Two-Way, it's time to ride."
"I know it," Two-way said huskily. "But can't you see I'm desperate? Do you think I'd of done that if I wasn't?"
Poco said nothing for a minute, and then he said, "No."
"Will you come up to my room, then?"
"Lead off," Poco said.
"No. Not together," Two-Way said hurriedly. "I'll go up. You follow in a minute. Ten's the number. Up those back stairs in the Sunflower." Then he changed his mind. "No. You go in the hotel next door and get a room. Jacob Finger is your name. I'll be up soon."
"Say it here."
"I can't! You know that. I can't, I tell you! I'll go get a room. It'll be on the second floor. I'll be there."
Before Poco could say anything, Two-Way had gone. The stableman came out with Poco's change and Poco told him he'd be after his horse in a little while. He gave Two-Way a couple of minutes, then walked down the street and entered the hotel.