From USA Today bestselling novelist William W. Johnstone, author of the acclaimed Mountain Man and Preacher series, comes Blood Of Eagles, the eighth book in his extraordinary epic saga of the American West. . .
One land. One law. One legend.
The Oklahoma Panhandle is one hundred miles of lawlessness and danger: a no man's land designed to separate Texas from pro-Union Kansas. Through this desolate strip rides legendary gunslinger Falcon MacCallister, a young Indian boy by his side. Behind him lies a scene of horror left by outlaws who'd ambushed a small wagon train.
As he searches the Panhandle for the killers, Falcon enters a storm of greed, thievery, and betrayal that has its roots in two long, gleaming bands of steel. A new railway is penetrating this hostile land--making some people rich, some people dead, and sending a gunfighter and a boy on their own brutal ride to revenge.
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Blood of Eagles
By William W. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2000 William W Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Fourteen miles west of the sorry little dugout settlement called Hungry, Owen Blanchard hauled his tired team to a halt and rubbed his eyes. For the past two hours the cold glare of spring sunlight had been in his face, and he felt half-blind.
He set his overland's brake, tied off his reins, and slumped forward, resting his face on crossed forearms on the high toeboard while he rolled his shoulders slowly, easing the cramps from his back. When he straightened up again, he could see a little better, and he gazed around bleakly.
Ahead, the sun was down now, hiding behind the toothed blue-white peaks in the distance — peaks like a giant erratic saw blade that sliced upward out of the horizon and seemed no closer than they had this morning. All around, as far as he could see in the muted rays of early evening, the plains rolled away endlessly — surging upward toward the west, toward the seemingly near yet far-off mountains. In all other directions they just went on and on until they simply disappeared into the deepening sky.
"I guess we're lost," he admitted. "They said back there that we'd come to a town of some kind after we crossed Horse Creek, but that was way back yonder and I don't see any town out here. I don't see anything. "
Beside him, Ruth pulled her skirts around her against the chill of evening wind. "I haven't seen anything since we left that place this morning," she admitted. "Those people said stay on the road, but I haven't even seen a road."
"Wasn't anything but a few ruts to start with." Owen stood, flexing his tired legs and stretching tall to peer out across the empty plains. "Then they disappeared in that sandy stretch." He peered to his left and pointed. "I see some treetops or something ... I think. Off to the left there, just a little ways. God a'mighty, I can't get used to this, hon. There's a slough there, or a creek, but if it wasn't for those bare limbs sticking up, I'd never know it was there. This damn grass prairie ... it just goes on and on, and you can't even see where there are holes in it!"
"Maybe that's a river," Ruth said, standing and squinting to see. "There was supposed to be a river, wasn't there?"
Behind them in the covered wagon, Dorothy and Tess pushed forward, curious to see why they had stopped. The girls had a little nest of bedding back there, among the packed furnishings and household goods. During the past few days Ruth had kept them close to the wagon, because of the dangers of walking.
A couple of hundred yards out ahead, young Bob Simms stood on a little rise, looking back at them. He held a forked stick in one hand and a rusty old saber in the other. Bullhide leggings covered his legs from the tops of his shoes to his knees. Ever since the scare two days ago, when the wagon had rolled out of a sage stand into a nest of rattlesnakes, Bob had made it his business to clear the trail of snakes. These first few days of spring sunshine had brought them out of their holes in droves, and they were everywhere.
The people at Hungry hadn't helped matters, either, with their talk of snakes. "That mound ye passed by, back a ways," an old man had said, giggling, "that were Rattlesnake Rock. Call it that cause the buzzers winter there. Stick aroun' a while, we'll fry some up for you. Tastes a mite like chicken."
They had left Hungry in a hurry. Now Owen wondered whether they had made a mistake. Two or three days more, maybe a week, and there would have been a supply train coming up from Raton to meet the rail at Big Sandy. They could have traveled with the supply wagons, then gone on to Denver, but Owen had scoffed at waiting. At the next real town, there would be a road. How difficult could that be, just to push on to the next town? He wondered now whether his logic was sound. With all the charts and maps he had studied before setting out from Meade's, and with the biggest of landmarks — the high Rockies up ahead — still, he was lost.
"They said we'd come down to a river," Ruth reminded her husband. "Maybe that's it."
"That's no river." Owen shrugged. "I don't see any river. Just a whole lot of ... well, of nothing. Whatever's over there, it's no more than a little creek. Damn these high plains!" He lowered himself onto the high seat, grunting as his aching legs and back protested the movement. "I guess we'd better take a look. At least maybe there's a place we can make camp, and some wood for a fire."
"Maybe we'll see lights after dark," Ruth said. "I thought a while ago that I saw some riders up ahead. Maybe we'll see their campfire. There's bound to be somebody around, to give us directions."
Bob Simms came walking back, and he had the same idea. "I saw them, too," he said. "Hour or so ago. Several riders, coming from maybe north. They'll be stopping, too." He grinned reassuringly. "Maybe we'll see them."
"You're just like your sister, Bob," Owen growled. "How can you always be so cheerful? Remember what they told us at Newton?"
"Oh, sure." Bob shrugged, still grinning. "Outlawsand Indians, they said. Well, we haven't seen either one, and I don't believe we will. Those sure weren't Indians I saw on that ridge out there. Just some men on horseback. And as for outlaws — well, brother-in-law, I don't see what they'd want from us. We aren't carrying any gold or anything."
Owen felt uneasy, but what Bob said made sense. They were just harmless movers, heading west. What would anybody bother them for? The Blanchards were of eastern stock, of modest roots and gentle background. It would never have occurred to any of them that a fully provisioned ten-span overland wagon, the kind often called a prairie schooner, might be valued in these wild lands.
"Can we stop for the night, Daddy?" Dorothy urged. "I'd sure like to heat some water and get cleaned up. I feel as if my hair is full of sand."
Ruth glanced around at her daughters. "You both need some washing and combing," she decided.
The treetops led them to a sharp little gully that opened out into a wide ravine. Scrubby cottonwoods, still with their winter limbs, lined a foot-deep creek where clear cold water flowed from a spring. There was plenty of firewood, and winter grass stood pale and thick downstream. When the stars came out, Owen climbed to a high swale and looked all around. He had hoped to see firelight, where there might be friendly strangers, but he saw nothing anywhere.
In the ravine, limestone walls blocked the chill wind and reflected back the heat of a good fire. While Bob Simms tended the stock, Ruth and her daughters bathed themselves, put on fresh dresses, and combed out their hair. Three of one stamp, Owen thought, coming back. The girls, now fourteen and twelve, were becoming young ladies, and would be as pretty as ever their mother had been.
He would find and stake the land he had bought, and they would begin the building of cabins. His brothers would be along soon, with their families, to prove up their own claims.
Maybe when the cabins were in they could all go up to Denver. They could enjoy town life for a while, and he could talk with men there about his plans to breed highland stock. The summer would be time enough to begin settling in.
Asa Parker knew, as he watched the last railroad man fall, that it was time to leave Colorado for a while. He watched for a time to make sure none of them were moving. Then he got to his feet and came down from the water tower, carrying his rifle. As Asa stepped from the ladder Tuck Kelly joined him, and he saw the others coming — from the old corral, the broken-down barn, and the cabin.
"Slick as a whistle, Asa," Tuck purred. "They never knowed what hit 'em."
A few steps back, Billy Challis laughed. "Wonder what them rail spur promoters will think when they show up tomorrow for their land meetin'! Sorry, boys, but the buyers turned up dead, and the sale's off?"
"Shut up," Asa rumbled. "Just get over there and make sure they're all dead. You can poke around that cabin, Tuck. Take anything you boys want, but keep it light. We've got travelin' to do. And leave their stock alone! Those are all marked animals. Just take a look around and we'll get out of here."
"You plannin' on sharin' out any of that money, Asa?" Billy Challis demanded. "Looks like there's enough to spread around."
Parker frowned at the cocky little gunman. "The money's for investment, Billy. I told you, we got bigger fish to fry. Now get those horses saddled!"
Aside, Tuck Kelly muttered, "What's the matter, Billy? Don't you trust Asa?"
"Hell, no!" the kid snapped. "Nor any of the rest of you, either. I'll go along, but don't nobody get any notions of shortin' on me!"
Tuck turned away, shaking his head. Billy was about as sociable as a rattlesnake, but that was normal for him.
The three rail agents were as dead as they'd ever be. Two or three bullets apiece, from ambush, had seen to that. Kurt Obermire and Folly Downs went from corpse to corpse, relieving them of their guns, loose change, and pocket watches. The two men looked like hovering vultures in their dark coats, stooping over first one and then another of their victims.
The railroad money — intended to buy rights for a San Juan spur for the Kansas Pacific Railway Company — was fresh stacks of goldbacks in a little wooden chest.
"Nine thousand dollars!" Tuck licked his lips. "Lordy, I know what I'd do with a share of that. There's a whorehouse up at Denver that —"
"There'll be law crawlin' over each other around here," Asa rumbled. "Besides, we're not goin' to Denver. I told you all, we got a job to do! We're headed for No Man's Land, just as fast as we can pack up!"
It would be a long hard ride on short provisions — down across the Purgatoire and the Cimarron breaks. Casper Wilkerson glanced longingly at the busted buckboard lying askew in a gully. Its team had bolted at the gunfire, and it was a wreck.
"Wish we had that." Casper shrugged. "Be easier travelin' with a wagon."
The six had put a hundred miles behind them when Billy first saw the lone wagon coming westward across the grasslands. A high-bow overland, it rocked along behind its ten-horse team miles from any road or trail. They watched it off and on for an hour or two, then noted where it halted for the night.
Settlers! A wagon like that was a rolling storehouse. With a wagon load of supplies, Asa reasoned, there would be no need to zigzag among the scattered little settlements and trading posts. And the prairie schooner itself was a prize. Where he was going, the big wagon might be very useful.
From a mile away, they watched and waited, letting the little camp settle in for the night. Then, when the fire's glow was low, they went in.
Bob Simms barely felt the razor-edged blade that sliced his throat open. He came out of sound sleep when his blankets were thrown back, and hard fingers in his hair pulled his head back and down. He saw a flash of metal, and then a coldness crossed his throat. He barely felt it, but he heard the sound of it as it sliced across, and he felt the warm torrent of his own blood bathing him.
The pain came then, when he tried to yell and couldn't. The pain slashed at him like fire, but only for a moment. It dimmed, right along with everything else, and Bob Simms sank into a blackness that would never end.
Owen Blanchard went down fighting, screaming and trying to load shells into the double-barrel greener that was the only gun he owned. He managed to swat one of the attackers with the shotgun's butt and kick the feet out from under another one, but then they were all over him. A big revolver was shoved into the pit of his stomach, and three of its slugs had blossomed in him before he hit the ground.
Billy Challis looked down at the writhing gurgling man beside the wagon wheel and grinned happily. He put his iron away and stepped over the body. Folly Downs was at the wagon. Slicing lashes, he pulled the canvas back and Billy peered into the wagon bed. Three pale faces full of terror looked back at him from the shadows — pretty faces above the lace collars of demure sleeping gowns. "Well, well," the gunman crowed. "This here night is our lucky day, fellers! Looky here what we got!"
Stepping up on the rear wheel hub, Billy grabbed a small arm and pulled. Amid screams of terror, he dragged fourteen-year-old Dorothy Blanchard from the wagon and threw her on the hard ground.
Ruth shrieked, and came over the sideboard swinging a skillet. Tuck Kelly intercepted her, swung a hard fist, and sent her rolling.
Beside the wagon, Billy grinned at the terrified girl trying to scramble away. Picking her up by her hair and one leg, he slammed her down again and fell on her. Slapping her hands away, he tore open the front of her gown.
"Come get 'em while they're hot, boys!" He giggled. "This here one's mine first!"
With his knife he slashed away her clothes, ignoring her screams and the blood that welled from a dozen cuts. When she fought at him he punched her in the face, breaking her nose.
Tuck Kelly swore and tugged at Asa's sleeve. "Look what he's doing!" he shouted. "I don't like to see that!"
Asa shook him off and peered into the wagon bed. Behind him the girl's screams died to moans as Billy pinned her arms back and forced her legs apart. Kurt sneered and turned away, not wanting to watch. Even Folly Downs, who would do most anything, turned away in disgust.
"Shouldn't we put a stop to that?" Casper Wilkerson muttered, glancing toward Asa, who was climbing into the wagon. "That crazy son of a bitch makes me sick."
Asa cut him short. "Let him have his fun," he growled. "He isn't hurting you, is he?"
"But, God, that's disgusting!"
"Keeps him happy," Asa said. "Let him alone."
The outlaws took what they wanted that night, and it was a long night. In the dark hours Billy finally slept, sated and content, and the rest stayed clear of him. They all knew Billy was crazy, but he was quick and mean, and no man among them wanted to brace him. The only man Billy feared was Asa Parker, and Asa wanted him happy.
With first light of dawn they hitched up the wagon, and Casper Wilkerson drove it out of the ravine and headed it southeast. The rest saddled up and rode with him, Asa Parker leading the way. There was no one around to see them go, or to see what they left behind them in the little sheltered ravine.
Buzzards were still circling when a big man on a tall black horse rode up from the south and angled aside to see what was there.
Long hair the color of winter straw whipped in the wind as he removed his hat, gazing down at the mute evidence of a massacre. Eyes like blue steel went hard and cold as he poked around the ravine, studying what he saw, piecing together what he could find — a name in a trampled Bible, a knife, a piece of a map, a scrap of lace, a locket. Together, they told him their story. Travelers from the east. Movers, off to set their roots in a piece of Colorado real estate.
"You poor fools," Falcon muttered, shaking his head. "Poor, innocent, greenhorn fools."
He buried what was left of the family of movers, then stood over the rough grave and bowed his head. "Lord," he whispered, "in case you're paying, any attention now to what you let happen here, these were the Blanchard family, from east of Neosho. I don't know anything to say about them, good or bad, except they didn't deserve this."
They didn't deserve it, his deep grief echoed, any more than Marie Gentle Breeze deserved what happened to her, back then. But, then, things happen all the time that folks don't deserve.
In that moment, Falcon MacCallister felt an anger deeper than any he had known in a long time. "I couldn't do anything about you, Marie," he continued, aloud, raising his eyes toward the sky where his beloved wife now dwelt among the spirits. "Lord," he growled, "there's a limit to what any man can tolerate, and I believe I just found it. Help me if you want to, or not if you don't care, but I guess I have to go after those men. Somebody else tracked down those savages who should have been mine, but there's another score here to settle and there's nobody else here right now. Just me. Amen."
Excerpted from Blood of Eagles by William W. Johnstone. Copyright © 2000 William W Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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