Hunter's Stand by Steven Linder by Steven Linder - Read Online

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Hunter's Stand - Steven Linder

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Prologue

JUNE 15, 1875

Golden splinters of sunlight wedged through the cleft of the West Wind Canyon as dawn broke, clear and quiet. The gentle light spread among the herd on the canyon floor, rousing them from their sleep. Slowly, as though lulled by the peaceful setting, the black shaggies stirred and began to graze, pushing this way and that in halfhearted tussles over stakes of grass.

High near the rim of the canyon, a young man sat in careful silence, watching the buffalo far below. He pulled the hat from his head, revealing a long mane of blond hair streaked by hours of harsh sunlight. Setting the hat aside, he pulled a pouch from his belt and laid it down also.

A long rifle rested across his knees, and he slowly opened the chamber. The gun was a Sharps .45-90, a heavy impact, long-range weapon. He fed it a first cartridge with careful, almost loving, attention.

His name was Hunter, the same as his profession. He was ready to begin the working day.

He studied the animals closely, attuned to their ways, until he had isolated the leader, a tough rangy bull with a commanding presence evident even from a distance. He hesitated still, adjusting himself to the mood and pace of the herd until he felt himself almost of one mind with them.

He raised the rifle. The leader stood before his sights, and Hunter aimed carefully, low and back some, going for a lung shot. The gun was trimmed to a hair trigger; it took barely a touch of his finger. The rifle barked loudly, and the shot echoed the length of the canyon.

His shot was true, and the bull tottered, staggering in aimless circles before it dropped. The buffalo near the dying beast grew curious at its behavior, and they gathered around it. Their attention went to the victim, as Hunter intended, not to the source of their growing danger.

It was the perfect beginning for a sizable stand.

Hunter reloaded, forcing himself not to hurry. Pace was important now: carefully timed lulls would keep the animals from bolting, and the killing could go on. He studied the herd, singling out the ones that appeared ready to run. One by one, these animals fell in their tracks, as his shots ripped into their hearts or necks, bringing quick death.

The buffalo milled about, confused, but waiting for one of their number to take the lead and move them away. Each bull or cow that tried to break was swiftly felled by another crack of the Sharps.

Hunter’s rifle grew hot as the day burned on, and the killing continued.

----

The sun was high when the shooting ceased, and a sudden stillness fell over the canyon. The smell of death rose like a thick cloud, and the grassy landscape was stained black with bodies.

Still Hunter sat, peering down over the field of carnage. He smoked a thin black cigar and waited, waited for something else.

Finally, a thin cloud of dust wafted up from the far end of the canyon. Hunter threw down the cigar and picked up the rifle again. The barrel was still warm, but he paid that no mind as he watched the man ride into view.

The rider picked his way through the collection of dead shaggies, moving calmly, like a man surveying his property. At last, he seemed to locate Hunter sitting high above him. He raised one hand in a haughty salute, but Hunter made no sign in return. The rider came closer, yelling for Hunter’s attention.

The Sharps sounded one more time.

----

Hunter ran. He knew that when the skinning crew arrived to yank the buffalo hides, they would find a remarkable sight. He’d left behind the evidence of a near record stand. The count was close to one hundred buffalo.

And one murdered man.

Chapter 1

OCTOBER 6, 1886

Mountains, dark with pine, stood out sharply against the bleak gray skies of autumn. Here and there a flash of color appeared as deer broke from cover, and mountain sheep ran effortlessly over stone paths no man could follow. Across these rugged hills came a man on horseback, threading his way over the rocky slopes with apparent ease. His clothes were the color of the long dusty miles behind him, and his eyes were weary, half closed, set in a face partly obscured by a heavy blond beard.

Hunter was glad to be nearly at the end of his long ride. Brago lay but a few miles to the south, and there he would put his wandering saddle away for good. The trepidation he felt at returning to Montana was small in comparison to the feelings that swept over him as he moved through the familiar hills. He felt that this rugged country was a part of him; it had remained with him like a nagging ache all the time he’d been away.

The years had rushed by like water in a mountain stream. He had little fear that the name James Stewart Hunter would be remembered. Only his own memories troubled him.

He rode on, slouching in the saddle as darkness crept in all around him. The weight of the past years was heavy on his back. His life had been a trail of switchbacks and dead end turns; all Hunter had to show for his thirty-one years was a horse and a pile of regrets.

The mare traipsed up and over the bank of a shallow washout. Up ahead, the path disappeared in a clump of dark cedars, and he let the horse have its head to pick its own way along the grassy slope.

A shot rang out in the evening air.

With amazing speed, Hunter rolled free of his falling horse. He tumbled into a clumsy back roll, ending in a low crouch. A long-barreled revolver appeared in his hand. He lay still, every sense alert, searching for signs of movement in the dim light. His eyes flared wide, probing; there were only shadows, dark and still. Then one shadow detached itself from the rest; it grew arms, legs, a head. Still, Hunter lay quiet.

I got him! I got him. I tell ya! came a whoop from the direction of the shadow.

Be quiet, you fool! hissed another voice.

Hunter turned toward the second voice. Another figure was appearing from the brush.

Go easy, Clay, this second man said anxiously. You can’t see if he’s dead for sure or not. Leastways, I can’t. This man hung back cautiously, a rifle held ready at his hip.

Paying no attention to his friend, the first man rushed forward. I tell you I got him, he yelled. Only one shot, too! I can’t wait to see what he’s got in them saddlebags.

Hunter eased himself down full-spread on the grass and tried to manage some clear thinking. Two shots would end the matter, he decided. One from himself, the second from the other ambusher. The men were too far apart, because the cautious one was swinging wide—and there didn’t look to be time enough to drop the first one and bear down on the second before he’d be shot himself. Hunter didn’t like his options; he decided he was going to have to let one of them get close. The eager one, apparently named Clay, was rushing in from the left. Okay, Clay, he said to himself, you get to be first.

Every muscle in his body was tensed, ready. He knew that when he made his move, it would have to be quick.

Clay was jabbering to himself as he approached. Boy, was I lucky this time. Ya don’t find so many fellas strayin’ into town on their own no more. Not these days—there’s too many of them dirty bushwhackers about! He laughed as though that were a great joke. "Won’t the boss get a kick outta this—me coming back with two, ‘stead of just one!"

Two what, Clay? his partner grunted. What’re you talkin’ about?

Nuthin’. I’ll explain it to ya in a minute. Just let me look this guy over.

The man drew so near Hunter could see the lines in his unshaven face, smell the horse dung on his boots. Clay looked down at Hunter’s stiff body, and the ambusher’s eyes lit up with glee. I told ya I hit him, he crowed. I said it would be that easy. He’s stretched out like dead meat. He turned to gloat at his approaching companion. Some shootin’, huh? Slick as could be. I brung him down with jest -- The boast died in his throat as a shot from below ripped into his neck and vented his skull.

Hunter was moving, even as the shot sounded. He hurled himself to one side, at the feet of the lifeless outlaw. The dead man crumpled, sagging like a rag doll. Hunter let the blood-spurting body fall against him.

The man with the rifle fired quickly, nervously, and the slug tore into his fallen companion. Then, just as the bullet-riddle corpse fell clear, Hunter fired.

He cut loose two shots, so close together that the sounds seemed but a single boom. Hunter compensated for his low-to-the-ground position, fearing the high miss. One bullet tore into the man’s groin, the second just above it. A short, horrible scream sounded, ending abruptly as the body thudded to the ground.

For a long moment Hunter remained frozen in place, warily eyeing the fallen outlaws. Then he tiredly let his arm sag to the ground. He swiped at a bead of sweat above his eyes, and climbed slowly to his feet.

Hunter scarcely glanced at the corpse by his feet, but picked up the dead man’s gun, then walked over and gathered up the fallen rifle of the second ambusher. He inspected it with interest; it was a Long Tom, a U.S. Springfield—a type of gun he’d seldom seen.

His appraisal was cut short as the man at his feet suddenly emitted a low moan. Hunter bent down over the would-be killer. The smell of the man’s pumping blood rose and filled his nostrils.

Mister, you oughta be dead, Hunter said quietly. His lips parted in a thin sardonic smile, and he pointed to the wounds in the man’s torso. Not very clean shooting, was it? Sorry, I never was any great shucks with a pistol.

The dying man stared past Hunter as though he didn’t exist. His hands were feebly grasping at his wounds, trying to hold in the life that was flowing out over the dry soil.

Not much of a talker, are you? Hunter said casually. Well, neither am I. He paused to light one of his black cheroots. But I gotta ask you one question. Just what did you and the other hombre hope to gain by killing me?

The ambusher spit blood as he broke into peals of bitter laughter. Ha, Mister. You don’t get it, do you? I just figured out what Clay was sayin’. The joke is that he gonna . . . His mirth ended suddenly, and his head fell back on the grass. His eyes stared up, blankly, at the clear cold sky.

So that’s funny, is it? Hunter said to the man who was well through laughing. You’re sure poor at answering a man’s questions. . . . He paused thoughtfully, and puffed on the cigar. Nice sense of humor, though, he added finally.

Hunter searched through the dead man’s pockets and found nothing but a few extra rifle cartridges. Grumbling to himself, he repeated the procedure on the second bushwhacker. In the man’s coat he found a dollar, which he promptly slipped into his own pocket, and a small slip of paper with a note on it scrawled in a bold hand. He squinted to make out the words in the light of the rising moon.

Trent—Killing Tom Bennett was a mistake. One I’ll gladly watch you hang for. And if you or one of your bandits trys a midnight visit to my ranch, the worms will feast on your stinking hide . . . Thought you might like to know.

Hunter read the message twice, but it only added to his confusion. The note was the kind of omen an Indian would call bad sign. What kind of trouble was brewing in Brago? he wondered. Neither of the names were familiar, and he would have tossed the paper away, except for one thing—the man carrying it had tried to shoot him.

He stuffed the note in his shirt and trudged back to check on his fallen horse. The mare was gut-shot, her breaths coming short and frantically. The poor animal snorted and tried to rise when Hunter approached, but only succeeded in increasing her agony.

Saddened, Hunter bent down and raked his knife across the beast’s throat, as quick and merciful a death as he could afford to give her. The crack of another gunshot didn’t seem too wise an idea just then—for all he knew, the two ambushers might have other friends in the darkness.

He collected his gear and walked up to the cedar grove, where he shortly located the mounts of his attackers. He led the two horses farther back into the trees.

Now that the excitement was over, his fatigue came crushing down on him. He considered the miles he had yet to go, and decided that morning would be soon enough to finish his long ride. Finding a small clearing in the tall stand of trees, he made sure that the horses were well-tethered, then gratefully stretched out on a bed of needles.

Hunter lay quiet a few moments, listening to the excited rustlings of a coyote attracted to the bodies lying some yards off. Then he let sleep take him.

Chapter 2

Dry and faded leaves rustled like delicate chimes in the wind that followed him down from the north. The air carried a promise of winter, and he shivered in his woolen shirt. He remembered Montana winters—days when the wind brought a seasonal change so sharp and sudden that snow would drift over heads of lilacs with their blossoms still open. It was a harsh country, he knew all too well, but one that he loved—for reasons he barely understood himself, or ever could explain.

He rode over the crest of the final ridge, and the town of Brago appeared before him. Hunter blinked his eyes in surprise. The town had grown like a spring foal; no longer a struggling settlement, it had expanded into something he barely recognized. Crude wooden structures with a hastily erected appearance now filled nearly all the valley.

The buildings had been placed haphazardly, with proximity to the two main streets the only obvious concern; along each of those roads the saloons and gaming houses were jammed together like spectators stepping on one another to view a parade.

Standing all by itself in one corner of the valley was the sole building that had not changed. It was Brago’s lone church, a small, forgotten-looking shack with a slapped-together spire of boards that had warped and pulled apart. Even with that spire, the church was the smallest, lowest building in the valley. Hunter thought that God would have to bend down some, if he wanted to find the faithful few in this town.

Most disturbing of all was the filth that accompanied this press of humanity. A veritable dam of rotting garbage clogged the stream just south of town; it would sit there all winter until spring rains filled the banks with enough water to carry some of it away. And over the town hovered the winter’s bane: a black cloud of chimney smoke, which clung to the rooftops like late morning fog; its steady rain of soot had stained their shingles the same grimy color as the mud-choked streets.

Hunter sighed in disappointment. All the signs were there—he’d seen the likes of it too many times before. Brago was swelling, bursting at the seams. He’d heard of the gold strikes at Alder Gulch, and he knew the types of men, the fortune seekers, who were the cause of the town’s rise in population. The gold hunters were vagabonds, transitory residents who contributed little and demanded a lot from the town. Someday, word of a strike a few miles north or south would spread, and overnight, hundreds of Brago residents would simply disappear.

Hunter hoped that day would come soon. Gold fever was a sickness he had a particular distaste for, and the men stricken with it would only bring trouble to this town he had returned to in search of a home. Shaking his head, he snapped the reins lightly, urging the horse down the hill for a closer look at this old place with its new disquieting face.

Scores of people were milling about on the main street that cut through the length of town. Some were up and going about the first business of the day; many others were headed to their bunks after a long drunken night or string of nights. Amusement is the major business in boom towns, and Hunter saw quickly that Brago was no exception. Nearly every third building offered liquor or gambling, and houses that offered pleasures of the flesh made up a goodly portion of the remainder.

A long bull train was lined up one side of the street, and several of the well-lubricated carousers threw themselves in the backs of the wagons to sleep off their indulgent stopover. As Hunter rode slowly past, a furious yell erupted from one of these wagons, and all eyes turned to watch one stalwart pioneer, obviously pickled and well-preserved, thrown bodily out onto the dirt. An indignant female figure appeared briefly in the arch of the wagon canopy, then the makeshift curtain was flung shut. Hearty laughter followed the poor drunken fellow as he stumbled down the street, and climbed into the next, hopefully correct, wagon.

Hunter hitched the two horses outside a small rough-boarded building with crude letters painted on the door. He read: BRAGO CITY JAIL, and below that, SHERIFF LUTHER SKELLY. Hunter noted with amusement that some prankster had scribbled in the word sometime before the sheriff’s title. He lingered outside for a minute, having a silent debate with himself. Finally, he made his decision—it would be best to start his new life in Brago with a clean slate and no mysteries. The ambush of last night was clearly a robbery attempt, so what fuss could they make over the shooting of two road agents? Hunter knew what law officers in boom towns were like. He figured a sometime sheriff would probably accept his account and promptly forget the whole thing.

Hunter stepped forward and pushed open the door. Inside, the tiny jail was dark and dusty, and stifling hot from a well-stoked fire in a corner stove. A short hefty man with a rambling bush of dark beard stood next to the stove, helping himself to a cup of coffee. The man looked up as the door opened, and glanced at Hunter framed in a shaft of sunlight from outside. The hefty man’s eyes goggled, and he spun around quickly, spilling coffee on his boots.

Surprise was evident in Hunter’s face as well. He grinned a bit uneasily and said, "If you’re feelin’ that generous with your coffee, why don’t you try giving