After ten years of working his way across the West, Cas Everett returned to his family’s farm in Texas only to find a charred ruin that was once his home—and five grave markers representing his parents and siblings. Their deaths were not accidental.
Cas’s time as a bounty hunter has earned him notoriety as a quick-draw artist and the enmity of more badmen than he’d care to admit. Now, one of them has taken revenge on his family, and Cas must follow the killer’s bloody trail to Deadwood Gulch—where the law isn’t welcome, and where justice isn’t wanted…
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GETTING THE UPPER HAND
Cas suspected the other Regulators were watching, so he palmed his .44 and walked directly up to the vigilante.
“The hell’s scratchin’ at you, mister?” the man demanded, taken by surprise.
The surprise, however, had just begun. Cas squared his shoulders, lowered his center of gravity, and raked upward at a forty-five-degree angle with his open right hand, swinging straight from his heels so he put cold will and hard muscle behind the effort. The heel of his palm caught flush under the point of the vigilante’s chin and snapped his head back hard. His feet actually lifted up from the boardwalk, and then he slackened and went down flat on his face.
Until Cas made his lightning attack, another vigilante, this one with a goiter on his neck and sporting a .45 caliber Army revolver, had been loitering nearby and paring his fingernails. The moment Cas dropped his comrade, Yancy saw the man start to draw.
“Cas!” Yancy bellowed. “On your left.”
Cas spun on his heel as he coiled for the draw, slapping leather and verifying his target. Despite getting a late start, Cas cleared leather while his opponent only had his gun halfway out.
“Might’s well finish what you started,” Cas told him. “Skin it back.”
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First Printing, November 2006
Copyright © The Estate of Ralph Compton, 2006
eISBN : 978-1-101-01074-7
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THE IMMORTAL COWBOY
This is respectfully dedicated to the “American Cowboy.” His was the saga sparked by the turmoil that followed the Civil War, and the passing of more than a century has by no means diminished the flame.
True, the old days and the old ways are but treasured memories, and the old trails have grown dim with the ravages of time, but the spirit of the cowboy lives on.
In my travels—to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona—I always find something that reminds me of the Old West. While I am walking these plains and mountains for the first time, there is this feeling that a part of me is eternal, that I have known these old trails before. I believe it is the undying spirit of the frontier calling, allowing me, through the mind’s eye, to step back into time. What is the appeal of the Old West of the American frontier?
It has been epitomized by some as the dark and bloody period in American history. Its heroes—Crockett, Bowie, Hickok, Earp—have been reviled and criticized. Yet the Old West lives on, larger than life.
It has become a symbol of freedom, when there was always another mountain to climb and another river to cross; when a dispute between two men was settled not with expensive lawyers, but with fists, knives, or guns. Barbaric? Maybe. But some things never change. When the cowboy rode into the pages of American history, he left behind a legacy that lives within the hearts of us all.
A lone horsebacker, astride a chestnut gelding with a white mane and blazed forehead, slowly appeared like a wavering mirage out of the scant-grown hills to the west. He followed County Line Road through the former cotton-plantation country nestled between the Trinity and Sabine rivers of south-eastern Texas.
Cas Everett had taken the old Shawnee Trail route south from Kansas City, turning east at Fort Worth. From long habit, his eyes stayed in constant sweeping motion, like those of veteran payroll guards. Despite knowing that Quanah Parker and his Comanches were powerless wards up north on a Fort Sill reservation, Cas still expected to hear their shrill eagle-bone whistles. Until recently the “red raiders of the plains” had virtually owned the Texas Panhandle and raided into the east with impunity. Now only the stubborn Apaches to the southwest still resisted captivity.
Cas switched hands on the reins to rest his arms. Overhead, sparrow hawks circled high in a cloudless sky as blue as a gas flame. He watched a quick-darting prairie falcon swoop down on an unsuspecting squirrel that had wandered from the shelter of an oak grove. The squirrel screeched in fright that quickly turned to pain. Abruptly Cas felt his good mood become apprehensive.
“Got me a God fear, Comet,” he said aloud, and the chestnut pricked his ears. “But no good reason for it. They’ll be all right, eh?”
Cas bucked the usual frontier tradition of not naming horses. By necessity he often went weeks without talking to a fellow human being, and months between meetings with friends. As Cas saw it, either a solitary man talked to his animals now and then or he ended up not quite right in his upper story.
He noticed new homesteads dotting the areas where Comanche raids had once thinned them out. When he was still a shirttail brat, there was no settlement within a day’s ride of the Everett farm. Now there was Iron Springs three hours east of their place. True, the same circus tent that served as a saloon and dance hall turned into a church on Sunday, and the sidewalks were only rammed earth, but Cas figured you had to trot before you could canter.
A gaunt man driving a big manure wagon approached from the opposite direction, yellow-brown clouds of dust trailing him like a plumed tail. Cas nudged Comet out of the narrow road.
“Mr. Kitchens,” he greeted the older man as the odiferous wagon jounced and rattled past, “how are you?”
The farmer drew back on the reins, staring as he tried to place the young man on the chestnut. Cas wore new-riveted Levi’s and a boiled shirt with a leather vest, a low-crowned black hat with a flat brim, soft calfskin boots with plenty of heel for grabbing stirrups. A nickel-plated, ivory-gripped Smith & Wesson .44, double action, rode in a hand-tooled holster.
“How am I? Still poor as a hind-tit calf, that’s how,” Josiah Kitchens finally replied. “You must be Cas Everett—nobody else around here needs two rifle scabbards.”
Cas ignored the barb. Old man Kitchens had been born with a pinecone lodged up his sitter.
“How’s the farm?” Cas asked him.
“I’m still sharecroppin’ for the grasshoppers.” The old man squinted as if puzzled. “Decided to come home, huh?”
“Just for a visit. Been a while since my folks laid eyes on me. Hope they still recognize me.”
Kitchens gave him a searching look. “Well, got to git. You take care, boy.”
Without another word, the old farmer clucked to his dray team and the wagon lumbered off. Cas sat his horse for a minute, puzzled. Old man Kitchens had always been a queer fish, but he must be getting worse. Or else Cas’ reputation around here was sinking even lower and nobody wanted to be seen with him.
However, a half hour later, he met another traveler, who was more than willing to share human company. Cas overtook a conveyance heading in the same direction he was, a colorful drummer’s wagon covered with gold scrollwork and painted screens. A middle-aged man in a straw boater and a baggy sack suit occupied the bench seat. As Cas drew alongside on the left, the drummer removed his straw hat and fanned himself with it, revealing heavily oiled hair parted in the middle to the nape of his neck.
“Howdy, stranger,” he called out in a suave baritone. “This heat would peel the hide off a Gila monster, hey? And we’re only in late May.”
Cas nodded, reining in to keep pace with the wagon. “We got two seasons down here: hot and hotter than hell.”
The drummer laughed. “Glad you came by. I’m pure people starved. Neusbaum’s the name. Hiram Neusbaum from Shreveport.”
“Pleased to meetcha. Call me Cas.”
The drummer’s studious eye swept over the man on the chestnut. He proffered a bottle from under the seat. “Old Tanglefoot?”
Cas shook his head. “Much obliged, but my ma will smell it on me and raise the dickens. She’s got Methodist feet.”
“Religion’s a fine thing—in other people.” Neusbaum tipped the bottle, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Say, Texas is mighty big, all right. This is my first trip down here, and I’ve never seen so much land and sky.”
“Room enough to swing a cat in, my pa likes to say.”
Cas glanced at the black-handled Remington the drummer wore in a shoulder rig.
“I hear very few men in Texas live to old age,” the drummer explained, seeing Cas eye the gun.
“You hear right, I’d say. The Comanches are subdued, but since the war, this state’s crawling with curly wolves armed to the teeth.”
Again the drummer’s curious eyes raked over the tall young man. “I’m not one to nose a man’s backtrail, but you don’t ’pear to be from these parts.”
“Born and bred,” Cas assured him. “Nowadays, though, you might call me itinerant.”
Cas had come to manhood during the bloody era following the Great Rebellion, a war that created plenty of easy-go killers in Texas. Resolute and defiant, he had been determined not to let himself or his family fall prey to the ruthless murderers—Comanche and white—marauding through postwar Texas. After toiling long hours in the traces to coax crops out of the dry earth, he practiced endlessly behind the barn with his crippled father’s old single-action Colt. By dint of sheer will and hard work he honed his aim to lethal perfection and eventually developed a draw one newspaper wag up in Kansas described as “quicker than eyesight.”
However, no man could outshoot a drought. When the Everetts’ hardscrabble farm eventually went under, only seventeen-year-old Cas could save his family. Forced to leave home in search of wages, he began a ten-year frontier odyssey that, against his will, secured his place in the pantheon of storied Texas gunfighters: teamster, express rider, railroad guard, he, with his Smith & Wesson .44, earned a wider reputation with each hardcase who pulled down on him and got himself planted. However, he truly earned the unwelcome moniker of “gunfighter” as a bounty hunter, running to ground the hardest of the hardcases—the killers of no-church conscience few others would pursue.
“Well, friend,” Neusbaum called above the rattling of his tug chains, “have you finally come home to husband the land?”
“I’d rather be caught in ready-to-wear boots.”
“Why, tilling the soil is noble work.”
“Well, then, guess I’m just a commoner,” Cas admitted. “I walked behind a plow for five seasons, and all I saw was the hind end of a nag. Got so I was hoping for a Comanche attack to liven things up.”
“Who can blame a young fellow? The world is changing rapidly. First it was the telephone. They say Hayes will be the first president to have one in the Executive Mansion. No doubt his lovely Lemonade Lucy will use it to deliver teetotal lectures.”
Neusbaum laughed at his own joke, but Cas only grinned politely. In Texas a gentleman could deride the president, but never his wife.
“And now,” Neusbaum prattled on, “they’ve just invented an electric light although I can’t see such a dangerous thing ever catching on.”
“I’ve heard of telephones,” Cas said, “never seen one though. Can’t see the need of it, what with the telegraph. That electric light might catch on though—no smell.”
“Yessir, a rapidly changing world,” Neusbaum pontificated as if Cas hadn’t spoken. “Only a few years ago the red aboriginals were still terrorizing civilized people. Now Slightly Recumbent Gentleman Cow, known to the vulgar masses as Sitting Bull, is selling his autograph at two bits a pop. Don’t it beat the Dutch? Geronimo, meantime, is on the run in Mexico, living on lice and fleas. Custer would be proud of soldier blue.”
Neusbaum took the reins in one hand and used the other to rummage through a burlap bag near his feet. “Speaking of Geronimo, could I interest you in some truly unique doorstops? These were Apaches.”
He produced two sun-bleached, eerily grinning skulls. Someone had painted satirical messages on them. SAFE ON THE RESERVATION AT LAST, proclaimed one. NOBLE, SAVAGE, AND DEAD, boasted the other.
“They’re funny,” Cas admitted. “But it’s the kind of funny that makes me feel guilty for laughing. More of Ma’s influence, I expect.”
Undaunted, the drummer reached into the wagon behind him and produced a dark blue bottle. “Sir, you look like a gentleman who’s seen the elephant. It’s around the eyes, mostly, and the calm air about you. I would not hornswoggle a man of your caliber, not by a jugful.”
He handed the bottle up to Cas. “You will hear of many cure-alls, but this is the only proven medical panacea known to man. Mixer’s Cancer and Scrofula Syrup. Only one dollar per bottle. Cures cancers, tumors, abscesses, ulcers, fever sores, goiter, catarrh, scald head, piles, rheumatism, and all blood diseases.”
“How does it know which one to go after?” Cas joked, eyeing the bottle from a skeptical face. “Anyhow, I believe in helping a man earn his living. I’ll take it.”
Cas paid with an Indian head gold dollar. Neusbaum eyed his clearly bulging chamois money pouch. “Ah, carrying a pocket full of rocks, I see. Care to see something in the way of a hernia truss? Or perhaps Dr. Doyle’s new weight system to straighten the spine? Too much time in the saddle can curve the backbone permanently.”
“Like to help you, Mr. Neusbaum, but I do indeed live in the saddle and have very little room for frivolous purchases.”
Cas was about to bid the drummer good day and move on. For days he’d been anticipating the pleasure of showing up at home unannounced. And not only did Comet require feed and a rubdown, but Cas required his mother’s hot cornpone and back ribs. On the trip down from Kansas City, he’d had little besides hardtack, dried fruit, and canned beans supplemented by the occasional greasy rabbit.
However, Neusbaum’s next question delayed him. “I notice your cutaway holster. Are’n’cha afraid your gun might fall out while you’re riding?”
“Never has,” Cas replied, hoping he’d buried the topic.
“Fancy pearl grips, too,” the drummer added quickly.
Cas grinned in spite of his irritation at the man’s nosiness. “Dime novel writers call them pearl-gripped, but they usually mean ivory-handled like mine. Mother-of-pearl would slip.”
Neusbaum seemed to finally achieve enlightenment. “Friend, I’m not very good at grabbing on to a man’s handle the first time he gives it to me. Might I ask your name again?”
“Caswell Everett. I answer to Cas.”
“Everett,” Neusbaum repeated woodenly, sunburned face paling.
“Mean something to you?” Cas demanded.
“Absolutely nothing. Never even been down here before.”
Despite the man’s denial, Cas noticed a sudden change in his leisurely manner. Neusbaum slipped a watch out of his fob pocket and thumbed back the cover. “By the horn spoons! Here I am jawing away like an auctioneer when I have an appointment to keep.”
At first Cas attributed the drummer’s behavior to sudden recollection of the notoriety Cas never asked for. A moment later, however, he remembered old man Kitchens and the searching look the cantankerous farmer gave Cas when he mentioned his folks.
Twice now . . .
“Steady, old son,” Cas whispered when his hands began trembling. “They’re all right.”
A little insect prickle of alarm moved up his spine. By now Hiram Neusbaum had grabbed the whip from its socket to gig up his team, but such flight was unnecessary. With a sharp “Hi-ya!” Cas touched his spurs to Comet and they were off at a gallop.
Just south of a low, pine-covered mound called Morgan’s Hill, Cas left County Line Road, following twin ruts that led past Yancy Carlson’s farm to the Everett place. His mind was a confused riot of thoughts and fears, of guilt and regrets.
He had no solid proof anything was even wrong, just a premonition that turned his stomach into a ball of ice. Cas was too shaken to even spare a glance when Comet tore past Yancy’s hardscrabble farm. Instead, his inside eye saw his careworn parents, his plucky kid brother, David, and sweet twin sisters, Janet and Jeanette, on the verge of young womanhood and pretty as four aces.
“They’re just fine,” Cas told himself, wanting hard to believe it. “Hell, the Comanches are long gone and this area is peopling up. There’s electric lights coming soon, cryin’ out loud.”
The Everett homestead lay in a teacup-shaped hollow, the house blocked from view by a windbreak of dense pines. Cas drew back on the reins, slowing Comet to a trot. His pulse throbbed in his ears, and his armpits broke out in sweat.
“It’s too dang quiet,” he told his horse.
That was just the beginning of the ominous clues. He spotted no one in the surrounding fields, which had been plowed but were starting to go to weeds. New cattle pens stood empty, and a stray dog was sleeping on the hide flap serving as well cover. No chickens were foraging for corn in front of their coop—his mother sold as many as ten dozen eggs a day to neighbors, though in starving times she gave away more than she sold.
Sudden fear pinched Cas’ throat shut. Comet was bridlewise, and Cas had only to lay the reins on whichever side of the neck he needed to go. He flipped them to the left side, and they started up a path that led through the pines.
“God in whirlwinds,” Cas whispered when they eased out of the pines. Shock gripped his senses, and he was forced to grip the saddle horn with one hand when the world around him seemed to spin crazily.
The long-familiar home of his youth, the solid plank structure built by his father the same year Cas was born, 1850, was now a heap of charred rubble. Cas gazed at it in numb confusion, praying to wake up from this unspeakable nightmare, praying his people got out.
Comet had been trained to stop when his reins touched the ground so Cas wouldn’t need to bother so much with hobbles. He threw them down now and dismounted, walking slowly forward.