Bill Ash, an escaped convict in "Spawn of Yuma," returns to find his father murdered. The "Colt-Cure for Woolly Fever" is Matt North's secret plan to force an entire range to reverse its decision to raise sheep. In "Posse of Outlawed Men," the disenfranchised are struggling to regain their land and dignity. The lawman in "Bondage of the Dark Trails" has to change his strategy after a governmental pardon exonerates the man he has been relentlessly pursuing because he now needs that very outlaw to help him enforce the law. In "Ghost of the Chinook," Llano Ackers, the owner of a local stage line that is on the brink of ruin because of repeated robberies, finds that he must defend himself from the charge of committing the robberies himself for his own enrichment.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.40(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Ghost of the Chinook
By Peter Dawson
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2004 Dorothy S. Ewing
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe man who lay belly down and half covered with snow at the lip of the rincón looked dead but for the thin fog of vapor that betrayed his breathing. His curly, straw-colored hair was powdered with snow, and his outfit-light canvas windbreaker, brown vest over thin blue cotton shirt, Levi's, and boots worn through at the soles-made a mockery of the below-zero wind. The bronze of his lean, beard-stubbled face showed two colorless spots along his high cheek bones, a clear sign of frostbite. His lips were blue, and his long-fingered hands, one clenching a sizable rock, were clawed in a stiffness that suggested death. His brown eyes, squinted against the wind-riding particles of snow, were very much alive. They stared unwinkingly into the fading light of dusk, regarding a rider on a roan horse threading his way through a sparse growth of timber seventy yards below. A wariness was in the eyes, the wariness of the hunted animal. Once, when the rider reined in at the near margin of the trees and looked directly above, the hand that held the rock lifted an inch or two out of the snow.
That gesture and that weapon, feebly menacing when compared to the Winchester in the saddle scabbard of the horseman, remainedfixed until the rider had disappeared into the snow haze. It gave a small hint of the dogged energy that had driven Bill Ash these last four days and three nights. The fact that he now laboriously thrust his body up to a crawling position and started dragging himself toward the dying coals of a fire at the bottom of the rincón was further evidence of it. He knew only that the fire's warmth meant life to him. And he wanted very much to live.
Stark singleness of purpose had brought Bill Ash in those four days and three nights the 227 miles from Yuma's mild winter to the bitter one in these Wild Horse Hills. He had walked off the penitentiary farm and escaped on a bay gelding stolen from the picket line of the fort, regardless of the knowledge that he was unarmed and that his outfit was too light to warm him against the weather into which he was heading. Last night, when the gelding had thrown him and bolted, the compelling drive that was bringing him back home hadn't weakened. He'd thrown up a windbreak of cedar boughs and built a small fire, gambling his luck against the fierce beginnings of a blizzard.
Somehow he had lived out the night. Today he had crossed the peaks afoot. This was the sixth fire he had built to drive out the pleasant numbness of slow death by freezing. As he crawled to the fire and held his stiffened hands to within three inches of the coals, Bill Ash knew that it had been worth it. For three miles to the south and out of sight in the gathering night and the falling snow lay the town of Rimrock, his goal. The blizzard that had so nearly claimed his life would in turn work to save it now. The gelding would be found and identified. The snow would blot out his sign. No law officer, even if he were interested, would believe that a man unarmed and afoot had been able to outlive the storm.
It took Bill Ash a quarter of an hour to thaw his hands enough to move his fingers, another thirty minutes before he felt it was safe to take off his boots and snow-rub the circulation back into his frostbitten feet. The pain in his feet and legs was a torture that dispelled some of the drowsiness brought on by cold and hunger. An hour and ten minutes after crawling back from the edge of the rincón, he was walking over it and stumbling down the slope toward the trees where the rider had passed. The roan's sign wasn't yet quite blotted out, the hoof marks still showing as faint depressions in the white snow blanket. Bill examined the tracks out of curiosity, remembering something vaguely familiar about the roan but still puzzled as to who the rider might have been. Well back in the trees where the wind didn't have its full sweep, he found the sign clearer. At first sight of it he placed the horse. The indentation of the right rear hoof was split above the shoe mark. The roan had once belonged to his father. He wondered idly, before he went on, who owned the horse now and what errand had brought the owner up here into the hills at dusk to ride into the teeth of the blizzard when any man in his right mind would have been at home hugging a fire.
* * *
Two minutes after dark, ten minutes short of seven o'clock, Bill Ash stood in an alley that flanked Rimrock's single street and peered in through the lighted and dusty back window of a small, frame building. The window looked into an office. Two men were in the room. Bill Ash knew both of them. Ed Hoyt, whose law office this was, sat with his back to the window in a swivel chair behind his roll-top desk, arms upraised and hands locked comfortably behind his head. He was smoking an expensive-looking Havana cigar. The cigar and the glowing fire door of the stove across the room were the two things that made it hardest for Bill to wait patiently, his tall frame trembling against the driving snow and the cold. The other man, old Blaze Leslie, was wizened and stooped but every inch the man to wear the sheriff's star that hung from a vest pocket beneath his coat.
Neither man had changed much in the last three years. Ed Hoyt was, if anything, more handsome than ever. His dark hair was grayer at the temples, Bill noticed, a quirk of pigmentation for Hoyt had barely turned thirty. The lawyer's broadcloth suit and the fancy-stitched boot he cocked across one knee were visible signs of affluence. Ed Hoyt had obviously done well at practicing law. But aside from this new-found prosperity, he was the same man who had defended Bill three years ago and tried to save him a term at Yuma. Blaze Leslie was as unchanged as a slab of hard rim rock, his grizzled old face wearing a familiar harassed and dogmatic look. Bill couldn't hate him, even though it was Blaze who had arrested him on the false charge that had sent him to prison.
About twenty minutes after Bill stepped to the window, the sheriff tilted his wide-brimmed hat down over his eyes, turned up the collar of his sheep-lined coat, and went out the door into the street. Bill waited until Blaze's choppy boot tread had faded down the plank walk out front before knocking at the office's alley door. He heard the scrape of Ed Hoyt's chair inside and stood a little straighter. Then the door opened, and he was squinting into the glare of an unshaded lamp in Ed Hoyt's hand. He felt a rush of warm air hit him in the face, its promise so welcome that the sigh escaping his wide chest was a near sob.
He said, even-toned-"It's me, Ed ... Bill Ash."-and heard the lawyer catch his breath.
Hoyt drew back out of the doorway. "I'll be damned," he muttered in astonishment.
Bill stepped in, pushing the door shut behind him. He did not quite understand the set unfriendliness that had replaced the astonishment in Ed
Hoyt's face. Ed was clearly surprised and awed, but there was no word or sign of welcome from him.
Bill said uncertainly, trying to put an edge of humor in his voice: "Don't get to believin' in ghosts, Ed. It's really me."
Hoyt moved quickly across the room, reaching back to set the lamp on his desk and wheeling in behind it to open the top drawer. His hand rose swiftly into sight again and settled into line with Bill. It was fisting a double-barreled Derringer.
"Stay where you are, Ash," he said tonelessly.
It took Bill several seconds to realize that this was really the man he had once considered his best friend, the man who had defended him at his trial. His hands were thrust deeply into the pockets of his canvas jacket, and he clenched them hard, the only betrayal of the bitter disappointment that gripped him.
"I'm cold," he said mildly. "Mind if I soak up some of your heat?" He stepped obliquely across the room, putting his back to the stove's friendly warmth. Only then could he trust himself to add: "I didn't expect this sort of a howdy, Ed."
Ed Hoyt's round and handsome face hardened. "Blaze just left," he said. "He's got the word from Yuma. He never thought you could make it through the storm."
"I had to," Bill told him, then nodding toward the Derringer that still centered on his chest: "Do you need that?"
"There's a reward out for you. I'm a law-abiding citizen." The statement came flatly, without a trace of friendliness.
Bill's brows raised in a silent query. He was able to stand quietly now, to keep his knees and shoulders from shaking against the chill that had a moment ago cut him to the marrow. The stove's heat was warming his back through the thin canvas.
"And you were so sure I was innocent!" he drawled.
"It's been three years," Hoyt reminded him. "I haven't found a shred of proof that you didn't kill that man, that you didn't steal your father's herd."
"You made it convincing enough at the trial. They didn't hang me."
"If I had it to do over again, I'd do it differently! You were guilty, Bill. Guilty as hell!"
Bill's mind was beginning to work with its normal agility. The first thing, of course, was to put Hoyt in his place. All at once he knew how he was going to do it. He said: "Ed, I've got my hand wrapped around a Forty-Five." He nodded down to his right hand thrust deeply in a pocket. "Want to shoot it out or will you toss that iron across here?"
The change that came over Ed Hoyt's face was striking. His ruddy skin lost color, the eyes widened a trifle and dropped to regard the bulge of Bill's pocket. Then, after a moment's indecision, his nerve left him and the Derringer moved out of line. He dropped it. Bill, stepping across to kick the weapon out of the lawyer's reach, said dryly: "These ladies' guns are tricky. You're lucky it didn't go off." He stooped to pick the weapon from the floor, reaching with his right hand and smiling thinly at the ready anger that crossed Hoyt's face on seeing his hand emerge from the pocket empty. As he straightened again, he nodded toward the chair behind the desk. "Sit!" he ordered curtly. "I've got to know some things before I leave here."
Hoyt lowered himself into the chair, sitting stiffly under the threat of Bill's right hand that was once more in his pocket but now armed. A change rode over him. His anger disappeared, and he said ingratiatingly: "I didn't mean it, Bill. Your steppin' in here like that set me on ..."
"Forget it!" Bill cut in, irritated at the show of hypocrisy. "Tell me how it happened, how he died?"
"Your father?" Hoyt asked.
Bill nodded. "I read about it in a Tucson paper. That's why I'm here, why I busted out to get here."
"They found him below the rim near your place," Hoyt said, adding: "Or rather, that's where he died. The rim was caved in where he went over. They dug until they found the horse and saddle. The saddle was bloody. That was enough proof."
Bill's lean face had shaped itself into hard, predatory lines. His voice held a thin edge of sarcasm when he next spoke. "Looks like the Ash family travels with hard luck. The paper said the old man and Tom Miles had had an argument and that Miles was missing. Any more evidence that he did it?"
Hoyt showed a faint surprise. "I thought you knew. They arrested Miles three days ago. He claims he didn't do it."
Inside Bill there was an instant's constriction of muscle that gradually relaxed to leave him weak and feeling his exhaustion and hunger. The thought that had driven him on through these four bleak and empty days had been the urge to hunt down Tom Miles, his father's killer, the man he suspected of having framed him with murder and rustling three years ago. To find now that the law had cheated him of a meeting with Miles, of the satisfaction of emptying a gun at the man, was a bitter, jolting disappointment. He leaned against the edge of the desk, his knees all at once refusing to support his weight.
Ed Hoyt went on: "Miles was tried yesterday. They hang him day after tomorrow."
Bill's face shaped a twisted smile. "Saves me the job." There was something more he wanted to know about his father's old enemy. "What evidence did they have against him?"
"All they needed. He and your father were seen riding toward the hills together that afternoon. They'd had an argument a couple days before. Something about whose job it was to fix a broken fence. I don't believe Miles was guilty. I defended him." He raised his hands, palms outward in a gesture of helplessness. "I couldn't convince the jury. Your father was a big man in this country. People wanted to see his murder paid off."
There was a long interval of silence, one in which Bill felt the keen disappointment of not having been able to deal out his own justice. Abruptly he thought of another thing. "What about Linda?"
The mention of that name brought a frown to Ed Hoyt's face, one that reminded Bill of the nearly forgotten rivalry that had existed three years ago between himself and the lawyer. It had been a strange thing that Bill should love the daughter of his enemy, now his father's killer, and stranger still that his best friend, Ed Hoyt, should be Tom Miles's choice of a son-in-law and that their rivalry at courtship had seemingly never interfered with their high regard for each other.
"Linda's taking it pretty well," the lawyer answered. "We're ... we're to be married as soon as this is over."
A stab of regret struck through Bill, yet he could speak sincerely: "You'll make her happy, Ed. It's a cinch I couldn't ... now."
Linda must have known then that waiting for his parole from Yuma was as futile as trying to get her father's permission to marry an ex-convict. He had written her a year ago telling her as much. His letter had been casual, intended to convince her that he no longer loved her, that she wasn't still his one reason for wanting to live. Gradually, through this past year, he had put her from his mind. It had changed him, hardened him, this realization that the one thing in life that really mattered was being denied him. But it had seemed the only fair thing to do, to remove himself from her life when to remain a part of it would have been too great a handicap for her to endure. "What about Miles's ranch?" he now asked in a new and gruffer voice.
"I'll run it, along with my business." Hoyt leaned forward in his chair. "That brings up another thing, Bill. Have you heard about your father's new will?"
Bill shook his head. The lawyer reached over and thumbed through a stack of papers on his desk, selecting one, a legal form, and handing it across. "That's a copy. Your father had it made up two days before he died. The original's temporarily lost. Blaze Leslie's going to try and find it at your layout once this business is over. It must be somewhere in your father's papers."
Bill read through the two pages, not believing what he saw the first time and going over it again. Here, in black and white, was an indictment that aged him ten years. First came old Bob Ash's blunt statement that he was disowning his son. He gave his reason. In the three years since Bill had been in prison, he'd been convinced that his son had betrayed him by stealing his cattle and killing one of his crew. In his father's own salty language were written the details of disposing of Brush Ranch in case of his death. A value of five thousand dollars, less than a tenth of its worth, was set on the outfit. The buyer was named as Ed Hoyt. The reason, bluntly given, was that Ed Hoyt had performed loyal legal services in trying to save Bob Ash's son from a deserved death. For that loyalty Ed Hoyt was to be given title to the ranch on a mere token payment. The $5,000 was to be divided equally between three members of the crew who had seen long service on the Brush spread.
The names of these three men wavered before Bill's glance. He realized abruptly that tears of anger and hurt were in his eyes. He crumpled the paper and looked away until he got control of himself.
Ed Hoyt must have detected this emotion in him for he said: "I'm sorry to break it to you this way. Now you know why I think the way I do, that you were guilty, after all. Your father convinced me."
"But his letters would have said something about it!" Bill argued. Then he saw how futile that protest was. He tossed the wadded sheets onto the desk, giving way to the bitterness that was in him. "I'm headed out, Ed." He nodded to indicate the alley door. "I'll keep an eye on you through this window for a few minutes to make sure you don't head up the street to send Blaze out after me."
Excerpted from Ghost of the Chinook by Peter Dawson Copyright © 2004 by Dorothy S. Ewing . Excerpted by permission.
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