When a bunch of ruffians rob a bank in the sleepy town of Alpine, it’s only natural for the locals to be alarmed. But this gang and its leader, Cestus Calloway, are a different breed of outlaw. In fact, Cestus is known as the Robin Hood of the Rockies, distributing his loot to those less fortunate, raining stolen money down on the townsfolk. As if that weren’t too good to be true, this gang holds to one important rule: steal but don’t kill…
All Alpine’s Marshal, Boyd Cooper, wants is a nice retirement, not to get a posse together to track outlaws. However, when an altercation leads to the exchange of gunfire and the spilling of outlaw blood, he doesn’t have much of a choice. The outlaws fear their reputation might be at stake, so they declare revenge on the tin stars of Alpine. They’re mad enough to break their own no kill rule, and Boyd Cooper knows things could end as bloody as they started…
More Than Six Million Ralph Compton Books In Print!
About the Author
David Robbins has been a writer for more than twenty-five years, publishing under a variety of pseudonyms. He is the author of Badlanders and has written more than a dozen successful titles in the Ralph Compton series.
Read an Excerpt
“Was it you who followed me?”
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 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.
Cestus Calloway sauntered into the Alpine Bank and Trust Company as if he owned it. Which was remarkable, the people in the bank would later tell a journalist for the True Fissure, since he was there to rob it.
Calloway wore his usual wide-brimmed, low-crowned hat, tilted up on the back of his head so that his brown curls spilled from under it. One lady would tell the newspaperman that it gave Calloway the look of the Greek Adonis. His handsome face was split in a wide smile and his blue eyes danced with amusement as he drew both of his Merwin Hulbert Army revolvers and held them out for all to see. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he boomed in that grand way he had, “we’re here to make a withdrawal.”
By “we,” Cestus meant the seven members of his wild bunch. Five of them strode in after him, spreading out as they came so that they blocked the windows and the doors. It was plain they had rehearsed what to do. As one bank customer would say to the reporter, “They moved like clockwork.”
The True Fissure would able to identify the five by the descriptions witnesses gave. They were Mad Dog Hanks, Bert Varrow, Ira Toomis, a man who was only ever known as Cockeye, and the Attica Kid.
The bank’s patrons and the pair of tellers all froze. Mrs. Mabel Periwinkle blurted, “My word!” and then blushed as if embarrassed.
Behind the rail at his desk, the bank’s president, Arthur Hunnecut, was the first to get over his surprise. Rising, he moved to the rail. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded.
Calloway chuckled and ambled over, saying, “You’re a mite slow between the ears, Art.”
“I don’t believe I’ve made your acquaintance, sir,” Hunnecut said stuffily. “And I’ll thank you to stop waving pistols around in my bank.”
Gesturing at the customers, Calloway laughed and said, “Do you hear him, folks? I bet if we look in his earhole we’ll find a turtle in there.”
Mrs. Periwinkle snorted and turned red again.
“Let me gun him,” Mad Dog Hanks growled. He’d acquired his handle because he looked exactly like a mad mongrel about to take a bite out of someone. It didn’t help his appearance any that he had large tufts of hair growing out of his ears.
Calloway glanced at him sharply. “What’s the rule?”
Mad Dog scowled and said, “Well, damn.”
“No swearing in my establishment,” Arthur Hunnecut snapped. “Not with ladies present.”
Calloway hooked the gate with the barrel of a six-shooter and opened it. “You’re a marvel, Art, and that’s no lie. Step out here while me and my boys clean your bank out.”
“I’ll be damned if I will,” Hunnecut said.
The Attica Kid came over, his spurs jingling, and just like that, his Colt Lightning was in his hand. The youngest of the outlaws, he always wore black, including a black vest. His eyes, as one person would describe them, were “cold green gems.” Cocking the Lightning, he said, “You’ll be dead if you don’t.”
“I’d listen to him, were I you,” Calloway said.
Arthur Hunnecut blanched.
Over by the wall, Mad Dog Hanks grumbled, “Oh, sure. Me, I have to behave. But you let the Kid do whatever he wants.”
Calloway shot him another sharp glance.
“Step out here, moneyman,” the Attica Kid said, “or your missus will be wailin’ over your grave.”
Hunnecut stepped out.
“That’s better,” Calloway said, and clapped the banker on the back with a revolver. “Now let’s get to it.” He nodded at Bert Varrow and Ira Toomis, and the pair went to the tellers and held out burlap sacks.
“Tell your people, Art, to empty the drawers and the safe,” Calloway commanded, “and be quick about it.”
Arthur Hunnecut looked into the muzzle of the Attica Kid’s Lightning and became whiter still. “You heard him.”
Showing his teeth in a dazzling smile, Calloway moved to the middle of the room. “I’m truly sorry for inconveniencin’ you folks. This won’t take but a few minutes.”
“Are you fixing to rob us too?” a man in a suit and bowler asked.
“Rob you good folks?” Calloway said as if the notion horrified him. “May the Good Lord strike me dead if I ever took from the likes of you.”
“What do you know of the Lord?” Hunnecut said archly.
“I know he’s not fond of money changers,” Calloway said. To the man in the bowler he said, “You must be new in these parts or you’d know I only rob those who deserve it.”
“What did I do to deserve this?” Hunnecut said.
“Do you mean besides the high interest you charge those who borrow from you? And besides those you’ve driven from their homes when they couldn’t pay their mortgage?”
“Now, see here,” Hunnecut said. “That’s a normal part of doing business. A bank isn’t a charity, after all.”
Calloway winked and smiled. “I am.”
At the front window Cockeye stirred and called out, “There’s a tin star comin’ up the street toward McGivern and Larner.”
“Who?” Hunnecut said.
“Pards of ours,” Calloway replied, moving toward the window. “Watchin’ our horses while we conduct our business.”
“Is that what you call it?”
The Attica Kid pressed the muzzle of his Lightning against the banker’s bulbous nose. “I’m tired of your sass. Give me cause and I’ll splatter your brains.”
“If he don’t, I will,” Mad Dog Hanks said.
Cestus Calloway looked out the front window, careful to hold his revolvers behind his back. “It’s that new deputy they got. Mitchell, I think his name is. He’s supposed to be out of town with the marshal.”
“That’s what I was told by that barkeep when I scouted out the town last night,” Bert Varrow said. He was the only one of the outlaws who wore city clothes, and a derby, to boot. His Colt Pocket pistol had pearl grips, and he wore a diamond stickpin.
“Either Deputy Mitchell didn’t go or he came back early,” Calloway guessed. Quickly moving to the front door, he poked his head out and said, “Send him in here, boys.” He stepped to one side, his back to the wall, and waited. It wasn’t half a minute that a shadow filled the doorway and in walked Deputy Mitchell.
The deputy wasn’t any older than the Attica Kid, and had red hair and freckles. “Mr. Hunnecut,” he said, “a man outside said you wanted to see—” Belatedly he stopped and stiffened. “What in the world?”
Calloway stepped up from behind him and tapped a Merwin Hulbert on Deputy Mitchell’s arm. “Turtles all over the place.”
“What?” Mitchell said, gaping at the Attica Kid and then at Mad Dog Hanks as if he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Undo your gun belt,” Calloway said, “if you’d be so kind.”
“What?” Deputy Mitchell said again.
“You need to catch up,” Calloway said. “The bank is bein’ robbed.”
“Some lawman you are, Mitch” Arthur Hunnecut said. “I told the marshal you were too young for the job, but would he listen? No.”
Deputy Mitchell’s features hardened and he started to lower his right hand to his holster. “Now, see here—”
“Don’t be stupid, boy,” Calloway said, jamming his revolver into the deputy’s ribs. “We can blow you to hell and back without half tryin’.”
For a few moments it appeared that Mitchell would draw anyway, but then he frowned and deflated, remarking, “I’m not hankerin’ to die.”
“No one has to if I can help it,” Calloway said good-naturedly. “And I usually can.”
Deputy Mitchell’s eyes widened. “Why, you’re him, aren’t you?” he said as he pried at his buckle.
“No. You’re Cestus Calloway. The one everyone talks about. The Robin Hood of the Rockies, they call you.” The deputy let his gun belt fall to the floor.
“I should thank that scribbler from the newspaper,” Calloway said. “What was that book he talked about? Ivanhoe?”
“You are him, though?” Deputy Mitchell said in awe.
Calloway gave a mock bow. “Yes, ’tis I.”
“Why, aren’t you somethin’?” Mitchell said.
Arthur Hunnecut muttered under his breath.
The tellers were hurriedly stuffing money from the drawers into the burlap sacks under the watchful eyes, and leveled six-shooters, of Bert Varrow and Ira Toomis. Toomis, the oldest of the gang, had a cropped salt-and-pepper beard and a wad of tobacco bulging out his cheek. Thrusting his revolver at them, he barked, “Hurry it up, you peckerwoods. We don’t have all week.”
“And get the money from the safe,” Bert Varrow said.
“It’s shut,” a skinny teller replied nervously, “and only Mr. Hunnecut has the combination.”
“Is that a fact?” Cestus Calloway said. He bobbed his chin at the banker. “You know what you have to do.”
“Never,” Hunnecut said.
“We’re takin’ it all, Art.”
“I refuse. Do you hear me?” Hunnecut said. “The people of this community have put their trust in me and I won’t disappoint them.”
“Kid,” Calloway said.
The Attica Kid’s smile was as icy as a mountain glacier. “How’s Martha? Should I go call on her now or wait until tonight when you’re off with your friends at that club?”
“Or maybe I should have a talk with Cornelia. I hear she likes to wear her hair in pigtails.”
A tremor rippled through Arthur Hunnecut’s entire body, and he had to try twice to speak. “How is it you know my wife’s and daughter’s names?”
“We do our homework, as Cestus likes to say,” the Attica Kid said. Suddenly leaning in close, he said so only the banker heard, “Now open that damn safe, or so help me, I’ll pay your missus and your girl a visit sometime when you’re not around. And you don’t want that.”
“You wouldn’t,” Hunnecut gasped.
The Attica Kid stepped back. “When I was little, I used to drown kittens in a bucket for the fun of it. I broke the neck of a puppy just for somethin’ to do. And when I was twelve, there was this boy who used to pick on me and tease me because I was smaller than him and he reckoned he could get away with it. One day he was doin’ it and I took a rock and put out his eye and broke most of his teeth besides. Later there was this gent who—”
Hunnecut help up a hand. “Enough. You’ve made your point abundantly clear. You’re a hideous killer of women and children, and if I don’t do as your lord and master wants, my wife and daughter will be added to your string.”
“I couldn’t have put it better my own self,” the Attica Kid complimented him.
His brow dotted with beads of sweat, Arthur Hunnecut went through the gate and over to the Diebold safe. Bending, he quickly worked the combination and turned the handle. There was a loud click, and he pulled the door wide open. “Happy now, you scoundrels?”
The Attica Kid glanced at Cestus Calloway, and grinned and winked.
“The puppy was a nice touch,” Calloway said.
In short order the safe was emptied and the tellers handed the bulging burlap sacks to Bert Varrow and Ira Toomis. Varrow hefted his sack and whistled. “This will be some haul.”
“Bring it here,” Calloway said, shoving his revolvers into their double-loop holsters.
“Must you?” Varrow replied as he carried the sack over.
“You know the rule.”
“Cestus and his damn rules,” Mad Dog said.
Backing toward the door, Calloway beamed at the banker and his patrons. “We’re obliged for your cooperation. Remember to tell everybody how decent we treated you, and that no one was hurt.” He paused and flicked a finger at the deputy’s gun belt on the floor. “Mad Dog, bring that with you. We don’t want Deputy Mitchell gettin’ ideas.”
The outlaws filed out. Last to leave was the Attica Kid. Standing in the doorway, he twirled his Colt forward and backward and then into his holster, and patted it. “Do I need to tell you what happens if you poke your heads out?”
“When the marshal hears of this, we’ll be after you,” Deputy Mitchell said.
“You do that,” the Attica Kid said. “And be sure to tell the marshal that Ben Larner can drop a buffalo at a thousand yards with that Sharps of his.” Spurs jangling, he backed out.
By then Calloway was in the saddle and reining away from the hitch rail. Some of the people on Main Street had noticed the flurry of activity and stopped to stare. “Folks, this is your lucky day!” Calloway hollered. “The bank is givin’ away money for free.” Laughing, he reached into the sack, pulled out a fistful of bills, and cast them into the air.
The astonished onlookers gaped.
“Get it while you can!” Calloway yelled and, gigging his mount, he made off down the street. He threw another handful of money at several women who had come out of a millinery and more bills at a group of boys who were playing with a hoop. Then he let out a yip, and with a thunder of hooves, whopping and hollering, the outlaws galloped off.
No one tried to stop them. No one fired a shot. It was, as the True Fissure would later report, “as slick as could be.”
Marshal Boyd Cooper loved to fish. He loved it more than just about anything. Which was why he had snuck away to the pond on Sam Wilson’s farm. It was a sunny day, the temperature in the eighties, perfect fishing weather. Not that Boyd cared so much about catching fish as he did about being able to relax and forget the cares of his office.
Boyd knew that his jaunts to the pond were the worst-kept secret in Alpine, but no one complained. He worked hard at his job, and Alpine was as orderly and peaceful as a town could be. No one begrudged him a few hours of indulging in his favorite pastime, especially not at his age. A man in his fifties was entitled to treat himself now and then.
Only a few people knew Boyd’s other secret, namely that the fish weren’t the only reason he came to the Wilson place. He could fish in any of the nearby creeks or the Rio Grande or Alpine Lake. The pond had another attraction.
A farmhouse stood less than a hundred yards away, and Boyd had barely cast his line and made himself comfortable when the screen door creaked and out came the other attraction. Today she wore a grass-green dress and had done her graying hair up in a bun. Her hands clasped behind her back, she meandered toward the pond by way of the pump and a cherry tree, making it seem as if she were only out for a stroll.
Boyd smiled. He liked that about her. She wasn’t one of those pushy gals, the kind who threw themselves at men and practically demanded they catch her.
Some might think she was being coy, but that wasn’t it. She wasn’t sure of him yet; she was taking her time and taking his measure.
Boyd pretended not to notice her until she was almost to the bank. Looking up, he greeted her with “Why, Miss Wilson, this is a surprise. What brings you out and about on this fine day?”
“How many times have I asked you to call me Cecelia?” she replied in that throaty voice of hers.
Boyd felt a tingle run down his spine. “Couldn’t be more than ten or twelve,” he said, and smiled.
Cecelia Wilson returned it. She was Sam’s sister and had the same pointed chin, but that was the only trait they shared. The years had been kind to her, and her complexion was smooth except for the crinkle of crow’s-feet around her eyes. She had a full figure and an ample bosom and always hid them beneath dresses that ran from her ankles to her neck. “A body would think you would have learned by now,” she said, then frowned and added, “Although, by rights, it should be Mrs. Zeigler and not Miss Wilson.”
“Your husband died, what, ten years ago?” Boyd said. “Usin’ miss and your maiden name is perfectly proper.”
“Eleven years next month,” Cecelia said. “Hard to believe.”
What Boyd found hard to believe was that she had remained a widow for so long. It wasn’t like in the old days when men outnumbered women by three to one, but there were plenty of older men—like him, for instance—who would delight in having her say I do. “You’re welcome to join me,” he offered.
“Gracious of you,” Cecelia said. Tucking at the knees, she sank gracefully down and clasped her fingers in her lap. “I was hoping you would come today.”
Boyd swore that his chest fluttered. “You were?”
“This has been going on for over a year now, off and on.”
“You mean me fishin’?” Boyd said.
“You know perfectly well what I mean. Forgive me for being so forward, but when are you planning to muster the courage to ask me out?”
Boyd shammed shock and said, “Why, Cecelia, you hussy, you.”
They both laughed, and Boyd was on the verge of doing what she wanted when Cecelia gazed past him and a puzzled expression came over her.
“Goodness, your deputy is in an awful hurry.”
Boyd looked over his shoulder. Sure enough, Hugo Mitchell was running toward the pond as if his britches were on fire. He’d taken his hat off and was holding it, and his limbs were flapping like an ungainly turkey trying to take flight. “What in the world?”
“Maybe there’s a calamity,” Cecelia joked.
Boyd hoped not. On weekends a besotted cowhand or miner or townsman might act up, and there had been a couple of stabbings and one shooting since he took office, but that was all. He’d been fortunate in that regard, seeing as how Alpine had twenty-three saloons and a reputation for being on the raw side. “Dang. I wanted to spend some time with you.”
“Oh, did you, now?” Cecelia teased.
The deputy excitedly waved his arms. “Coop! Coop! We’ve got trouble!” he bawled.
“Uh-oh,” Cecelia said.
Boyd refused to move just yet. His deputy was green and tended to exaggerate things. “Calm down, Mitch,” he said as the younger man came to a stop and doubled over, wheezing and puffing. “What’s so all-fired important?”
“The bank,” Mitch panted.
“Which one? We have three.”
“The Alpine,” Mitch got out. “It was robbed.”
Pushing to his feet, Boyd gripped Mitch by the shoulder. “How long ago? Did anyone see who did it?”
“I did. I was right there. He disarmed me in front of everybody and made me look the fool.”
“Why, Cestus Calloway, of course. Who else goes around robbin’ banks in these parts?”
“Oh my,” Cecelia said.
Boyd felt another flutter but this time of anger. “Calloway,” he said bitterly. “Did they hurt anybody?”
“Not a soul,” Mitch said. “You know how he is. He rode out of town laughin’ and throwin’ money at folks. Who’s goin’ to shoot somebody who’s throwin’ money at them?”
Boyd realized he was still holding his fishing pole and held it out to Cecelia. “Would you hold on to this for me? And my basket? I have to hurry back.”
“Naturally,” she said. “Do what you must.”
Wheeling on a bootheel, Boyd strode off. He’d left his horse in a shaded stand of trees that bordered the road and come to the pond on foot.
Mitch quickly caught up. “You should have seen them. As brazen as you please. They made poor Mr. Hunnecut open the safe and cleaned him out. They’re a scary outfit.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“The scariest is that Attica Kid. You should have seen him. Mean as a snake, and he can twirl that pistol of his like nobody I ever saw.”
“How many others took part besides those two?”
“All of them,” Mitch said. “It was the whole bunch that the newspaper says ride with Calloway. They headed west. Mr. Hunnecut wanted me to go right after them, but I figured I should come fetch you.”
“You did right.”
“Why do you reckon Calloway picked one of our banks this time? He’s fought shy of Alpine until now.”
Boyd pondered on that. Cestus Calloway had been robbing banks and stagecoaches for the better part of two years. The first anyone heard of Calloway, he and his men struck the Cloverleaf Bank and made off with seven thousand dollars. Not six months later, they relieved the Red Cliff Bank of twelve thousand. Two stages were stopped earlier in the year, and now this.
“Folks say it’s because he’s afraid of you,” Mitch mentioned. “On account of your reputation.”
In a rush of memories, Boyd relived his early days, his years as a deputy in Missouri and then his stint as a marshal in Kansas. Once, and only once, he’d shot a man, a drunk who had stabbed two other drunks and was waving a bloody knife around in the middle of the street. Boyd told him to drop the knife and surrender, but the jackass came at him slashing with the knife as if it were a sword, and Boyd had no choice but to put lead in him. Boyd shot to wound, but the shoulder became infected and the man died.
Boyd wouldn’t have thought a small thing like that would mark a man for life, but it followed him everywhere. He was a man-killer, they whispered, which was ridiculous. He hadn’t had to shoot another human being in fifteen years, and God willing, he never would again.
“I told Harve to start roundin’ up a posse,” Mitch said.
Boyd grunted. Harvey Dale worked part-time as a deputy, and the rest of the time swept out the stable. Dale was in his sixties and had been a buffalo hunter and a scout for the army at one time.
“How many should we take with us? Twenty or thirty?” Mitch asked.
“Why not fifty while you’re at it?” Boyd scoffed.
Mitch took him seriously. “Thirty should be enough. There’s only seven outlaws, so it’s more than enough if they put up a fight.”
“I was joshin’,” Boyd said to set him straight. “Half a dozen will do.”
“We’re talkin’ Cestus Calloway and the Attica Kid,” Mitch said. “The Kid alone is a tiger. They say he’s bucked out twenty men or better.”
“Not likely,” Boyd said. Going by his own experience, he added, “It would surprise me considerably if it’s more than four or five.”
Mitch had tied his roan next to Boyd’s chestnut. Mounting, they reined out of the trees and headed north toward town at a trot. It was only half a mile, and when they got there, Main Street swarmed with two-legged bees buzzing about the robbery.
Boyd threaded through to the hitch rail in front of the Alpine Bank and Trust Company. He wasn’t out of the saddle when the door was flung open and Arthur Hunnecut strode toward him like a rooster on the peck.
“There you are!” the banker exclaimed. “Where in heaven’s name have you been? It’s been forty-five minutes since my bank was cleaned out.”
“I was out of town,” Boyd said, and let it go at that. Looping his reins, he stepped around the rail. “Suppose you tell me how much they took and anything else that might help.”
“We’re still tallying the figures,” Hunnecut said, “but I expect the total will be over fifteen thousand dollars. I had at least that much in the safe and they emptied the drawers as well.”
Mitch whistled. “Lord Almighty. I doubt I’ll see that much money my whole life long.”
“Go see how Harve is doin’,” Boyd said. “Get grub from Tom at the general store, and ammunition for whoever needs it. We might be out all night, so have them bring bedrolls.”
“Will do,” Mitch said, and gigged the roan.
“You’ll have to hurry if you’re to have any hope of overtaking those outlaws by nightfall,” Hunnecut urged.
“There’s no rush,” Boyd said.
“I beg your pardon? They’ve stolen the town’s money. If that’s not reason enough, I don’t know what is.”
“We push too hard, we’ll wear out our horses, and if they have relay mounts waitin’, we’ll lose them for good,” Boyd explained. “So long as it doesn’t rain, we’ll catch them—eventually. Harvey Dale can track like an Apache.”
Hunnecut regarded the cloudless sky. “I guess you know what you’re doing,” he remarked, but it was plain he was skeptical. “Just make sure you do catch them. The good people of Alpine won’t like having their savings stolen from under your very nose.”
“That’s hardly fair.”
“Be that as it may, you wear your badge at the discretion of the town council. We appointed you and we can appoint someone to replace you if you can’t do your job.”
Boyd bristled but held his temper in check. “I don’t take kindly to threats.”
“I was only saying,” Hunnecut said, with a barely concealed smirk.
Were he thirty years younger, Boyd might have hit him. He’d never liked the man. The conceited so-and-so thought he was God’s gift to creation just because he owned a bank. “Let me hear what happened. Don’t leave anything out.”
Hunnecut’s account was short and to the point. He ended with “I’m surprised you didn’t expect something like this and take steps to prevent it. After Cloverleaf and Red Cliff, it was inevitable that Calloway would strike here.”
“I can only do so much with one deputy and a part-timer,” Boyd said, “and that’s all the council had money for.” He paused. “If you were so worried, why didn’t you hire a guard out of your own pocket?”
“I was as careless as you.”
Boyd looked away so the banker wouldn’t see the flash of anger on his face. As luck would have it, just then a boy of twelve or so hustled up and extended a handful of bills. “What’s this, son?”
“Some of the money from the robbery. My ma says I’m to give it back.”
“I should say you are,” Hunnecut said, and snatched the bills before Boyd could. “Thank her for me. It’s nice to know there’s at least one honest soul in this town.”
“Ma told me that you might give me a reward,” the boy said hopefully.
“For doing what’s right? That would hardly be ethical.” Hunnecut wagged his fingers. “Now shoo. We adults have matters to discuss.”
The boy slumped in disappointment and walked off.
“Proud of yourself?” Boyd said.
“I certainly am,” Hunnecut said. “I’ve taught him an invaluable lesson. Never rely on the cup of human kindness, because there’s no such thing.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Those outlaws do. You’d do well to remember that when they have you in their gun sights.”
Cestus Calloway liked it when things ran smoothly. He worked hard to ensure that they did. Some folks wouldn’t call robbing banks and stages work, but they didn’t realize how much planning it took to carry out a robbery and get away with your hide intact.
Take the Alpine Bank and Trust Company, for instance. Cestus had spent weeks preparing. He’d sent some of his men into town—those less likely to be recognized—to scout things out. Bert Varrow was the best at it. A gambler before he took to the owl-hoot trail, Varrow had a good memory for details, as well as cards. Butch McGivern was a natural at ferreting information out too. A former cowboy, he used his friendly disposition to fool folks into gabbing.
From them, and from other tidbits he’d picked up, Cestus had learned that of the three banks, the Alpine Bank and Trust Company kept the most money on hand. The bank’s president, Hunnecut, liked to brag as much. That made picking the target easy.
Cestus had also learned that the town’s law dog liked to go fishing now and then, which was right accommodating of him. Occasionally he took his deputy along. By timing the robbery just right, Cestus had hoped to get in and out before they returned. As luck would have it, this time the deputy hadn’t gone, but he was so green he’d posed no threat at all.
Yes, sir, Cestus congratulated himself as the eight of them descended a pine-covered slope toward Alpine Lake, things had gone well. Now all that remained was to shake the inevitable posse and make it to their hideout unseen.
Cestus never would have imagined he’d be so good at being so bad. When he was a boy growing up in Ohio, there was nothing about him to show that one day he’d be the scourge of Colorado. Or the scourge of anything, for that matter.
Cestus had been as ordinary as dishwater, a boy who liked to roam the woods and hunt and wrestle other kids and do all the other things kids did. Then his father took it into his head to go West and they moved to the Plains. But farming in Nebraska wasn’t the same as farming in Ohio. The climate was harsher. In the summer the temperature could climb to a hundred and ten or more. In the winter, arctic winds drifted the snow feet deep. There was less rain, and without irrigation, their crops wouldn’t thrive.
The family was always struggling.
Cestus thought he’d help out by taking a job sweeping out a saloon and cleaning the spittoons. The gamblers and doves and two-legged wolves fascinated him. It was his first taste of vice, and he drank deep.
By his sixteenth year he was sick of farm life. He said good-bye to his folks and struck out on his own. He took up with those on the shady side of the law, and liked the life they lived. The excitement of it. The drinking and the card-playing and the willing ladies in their tight dresses.
Cestus made the rounds of all the Kansas cow towns, living life to the fullest but always short on the money he needed. Then one day in a small farming town called Newberg, when he was half-drunk, he had a brainstorm on how to get that money. He and some pards robbed the Newberg Bank.
It had been ridiculously easy. So much so that, when he ran out of the money from Newberg, he robbed another bank to see if it would be as easy as the first. It was. He had found his calling.
And now, years later, he was still robbing for a living, still taking each day as if there was no tomorrow, and loving the hell out of life.
The pines thinned and the lake appeared. Fed by runoff from a glacier, Alpine Lake had the bluest water anywhere. It was so far from Alpine—over ten miles—that few folks ever visited it except for occasional fishermen and hunters.
Cestus slowed his mount to a walk and started around the shore toward the far end. That was where their fresh mounts were tied.
Hooves clomped, and the Attica Kid came alongside Cestus’s bay. “I’ll be damn glad when we reach the cave.”
Cestus looked at him, and grinned. “Gettin’ grumpy in your young age, are you?”
“I’m tired of the dirty looks Mad Dog keeps givin’ me,” the Kid said. “He keeps it up, you’ll need to find somebody to take his place.”
“He’s jealous, is all,” Cestus said. “He thinks I treat you special. Likes to call you my favorite.”
“That’s no excuse. I won’t be looked down on. Not by him or anybody.”
“Do you ever regret leavin’ Texas?”
The Kid glanced over. “Where did that come from?”
“I was thinkin’ of the old days,” Cestus said. “About how I got my start. A man can learn a lot from his past.”
“Learn all you want. I never look back. What’s done is done. So no, I don’t have any regrets. Except maybe that you brought Mad Dog into the outfit.”
Cestus laughed. “I’d be obliged if you rein in that temper of yours and don’t gun him. He has his uses.”
“Since when is gripin’ a use?”
Cestus laughed louder. “That’s another thing I like about you, Kid. Your sense of humor is almost as good as mine.”
“I wasn’t bein’ funny. He’s a pain in the ass.”
More hooves drummed, and now it was grizzled Ira Toomis who came up on Cestus’s other side. “No sign of anyone after us yet.”
“They will be,” Cestus said.
“What makes you so sure?” Toomis asked.
“Marshal Boyd Cooper. He takes his law-doggin’ serious,” Cestus said. “He won’t like us robbin’ his town.”
Toomis snorted. “Just another nobody with a badge.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Ira. He’s killed his man.”
“Hell, who hasn’t?” Toomis replied. “Bein’ a man-killer is as common as fleas these days.”
“Why are you arguin’ with me?” Cestus asked.
“I just don’t see him as anyone to sweat about.”
“You should. I heard of him over to Kansas. He’s not famous like Wyatt Earp, or like Wild Bill was. He’s no gun hand, but he does what he has to to get the job done.”
“I’m more worried about Harvey Dale,” Toomis said.
“I got to talkin’ to him one day a while back when I put my horse up at the stable. He used to scout for the army. Did a lot of trackin’. Told me he tangled with the Sioux and some other tribes. And now he’s a part-time deputy.”
Cestus drew rein and the others followed suit. Shifting in the saddle, he glared at Toomis. “You’re just now tellin’ me this?”
“I knew Dale does a little deputy work, but I didn’t know the rest,” Cestus said. “I sure as hell didn’t know he used to be a scout. How did it never occur to you to tell me?”
Toomis sheepishly shrugged. “I’m sorry, Cestus. It was over a year ago that I was there. After we’d robbed the Cloverleaf Bank and you had us split up to throw the Cloverleaf posse off our scent.”
“Damn,” Cestus said. “A tracker.”
“He’s an old codger, like me,” Toomis said. “Likely as not, he’s not near as good as he was in his younger days.”
“Don’t treat me like I’m dumb,” Cestus said. “A minute ago you were worried about him, and now I am too. This changes things.” He brought his weary horse to a trot.
Cestus didn’t put all the blame on Toomis. He should have had Varrow or McGivern nose around in Alpine when he first heard about the old man at the stable who helped out the marshal from time to time. It was an oversight, and mistakes like that could prove fatal.
They arrived at the north end of the lake. Their horses were right where they’d picketed them. Ranks of spruce bordered the shore, and higher up, aspens shimmered in the sunlight. Out on the water, ducks swam and geese honked.
A fish leaped with a loud splash.
Normally Cestus liked to appreciate Nature in all her glory, but now he was all business as he had his men switch to their new horses. He transferred the burlap sacks to a sorrel and went over to Ben Larner, who was adjusting the cinch on a grulla.
Larner was the second oldest, after Toomis. In his younger days he had hunted buffalo and still had the Sharps he’d used, converted from percussion to cartridge by a St. Louis gunsmith. He was cradling the buffalo gun as he tugged on the cinch. He had gray eyes and skin like old leather, and was the only one of them who wore buckskins. He wore a bandoleer across his chest and a bowie knife on his left hip.
“Ben, we have a problem,” Cestus said.
Larner looked up. “Oh?”
“Could be a tracker is on our heels.”
“The real article?” Larner said in his gravelly way.
“Old army scout.”
“Then he’s for real all right and not one of those blowhards who say they can track but couldn’t find their own ass in the dark without a lantern.”
“What is it you want me to do?”
“I’d like to discourage the tracker and the rest of the posse,” Cestus said. Turning, he surveyed the blue expanse of Alpine Lake and the wide shorelines on either side. “You could wait in the spruce there, and when they come, shoot the scout’s horse and maybe one or two others besides.”
“Why not shoot the tracker?”
“You know why,” Cestus said. “I keep tellin’ all of you. We don’t kill unless we have to. There’s nothin’ that stirs folks up more than a killin’. They send out bigger posses and hardly ever give up, and we don’t want that.”
“It’s hard not to kill when killin’ is so easy,” Larner said.
“I know. But it’s not smart, and smart is what keeps us alive. So long as all we do is rob and give away money, people don’t get riled. We’re harmless. They like us, and laugh at the law behind their backs. We want that. We want them on our side, not scourin’ the countryside to string us up.”
“The horses it will be,” Larner said.
“I’ll leave one of the others to lend a hand and the rest of us will push on. Join us at the cave when you’re done.”
“I don’t need no nursemaid.”
“Just to keep you company,” Cestus said. “Toomis, maybe? The two of you get along.”
“He’s always spittin’ tobacco juice. My pa used to do it. I couldn’t stand it then and I can’t stand it now.”
“Cockeye, then. He doesn’t use chaw and hardly ever talks.”
“That eye of his makes my skin crawl, the way it looks off one way when his other eye is lookin’ right at you.”
“Well, ain’t you fussy?” Cestus said.
“I’ll be fine by my lonesome. I’ll shoot a few horses and fan the breeze and be with you by sunset.”
Cestus gave in. “All right.” He trusted Larner to get the job done. The old buffalo hunter was one of the most dependable of the bunch. “But don’t take chances, you hear? Use that Sharps of yours to its best advantage and drop their horses a ways off. Don’t let them get close.”
“Yes, Ma,” Larner said.
Laughing, Cestus turned and climbed on the sorrel. The others were already mounted and waiting. He led them into the spruce and up a steep slope to a ridge thick with firs. A switchback brought them to the aspen belt, and from there it was a short climb to a narrow pass and a sweeping vista of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
To the west was the Divide, the backbone of the continent, the miles-high peaks capped by snow much of the year. Far to the south, smoke rose from the Tilden Smelting and Sampling Works, one of the three large mines that accounted for Alpine’s prosperity. To the east the mountains sloped away toward Alamosa.
Once through the pass, Cestus descended to the tree line and followed it north to an imposing series of cliffs. Midway along, a dark maw yawned. It wasn’t visible from above. Nor could it be seen from below, thanks to the heavy forest. Cestus had learned about it over a card game in Denver from an old trapper deep in his cups. Finding it had proven difficult but worth the effort.
“Home, sweet home,” Bert Varrow joked as they drew rein at the cave entrance.
“It keeps the rain off us,” Mad Dog said. “That’s all I care about. I don’t like bein’ wet.”
Bert sniffed a few times and grinned. “We know.”
Butch McGivern laughed. He had taken off his hat and was swatting dust from his sleeves and his britches. “I try not to breathe when Hanks is upwind of me. It about kills my nose.”
“Go to hell,” Mad Dog said. “I don’t stink that bad.”
“Says you,” Butch McGivern replied.
“Enough,” Cestus said. Dismounting, he stretched and arched his back. It had been a long ride and he was a little stiff.
“Are you tellin’ us when to talk now?” Mad Dog asked.
“Don’t start,” Cestus said. “I’m still annoyed with you for how you acted at the bank.”
“What did I do?”
“You were mouthy,” Cestus said. “You complain too much, Mad Dog, and it gets on my nerves.”
The Attica Kid had climbed down and was flexing the fingers of his gun hand. “Gets on my nerves too. And you don’t want to do that.”
Mad Dog opened his mouth to say something but apparently thought better of it and didn’t.
“That’s what I like about us,” Bert Varrow said. “We’re one big happy family.”
“Like hell we are,” Mad Dog said. “We’re robbers and killers and we’ll all come to a bad end.”
“Not if I can help it,” Cestus said.
Marshal Boyd Cooper had to hand it to Harvey Dale. The old scout was a marvel.
Dale had found where the outlaws left the road and cut north into heavy timber, and from then on had stuck to their trail like a hound dog to a raccoon’s scent. For his age he was remarkably spry, and stopped often to spring down and examine the ground. With his buckskin shirt and old cavalry hat and patched army pants, he might as well be leading a patrol deep into Indian country as guiding a posse after outlaws.
In addition to Boyd, Mitch, and Dale, their posse consisted of two cowboys from the Circle T who happened to be in town, a blacksmith who did a lot of hunting, the owner of the stable where Dale worked, who was a superb rider, plus Sam Wilson, who had shown up as the posse was set to ride out and said he needed to talk to Boyd so he might as well tag along.
Boyd didn’t know what that was about, but he did know he was pleased with his posse. Mitch had picked well. The two cowpokes, Sherm Bonner and Lefty, spent most of their lives in the saddle, and Sherm was reputed to be more than a fair hand with his six-shooter. The blacksmith, Vogel, had muscle enough for three men, and spent all his free time off in the woods after big game. Vogel’s favorite rifle was a Maynard .50 caliber. With it he could drop a bull elk at five hundred yards. The stable owner, Clell Parsons, had brought a Spencer, but by his own admission he’d hardly ever used it.
Now, riding hard, they came to a shelf and started up the steep slopes on the other side.
Boyd slowed to spare their animals. He was keeping an eye on Dale, who was well out in the lead, bent low from his saddle.
“They were still movin’ fast,” he called back. “Too fast, if you ask me.”
Sam Wilson happened to be riding beside Boyd and cleared his throat. “What does Dale mean by that?”
“They keep goin’ like they are,” Boyd said, “they’ll ride their horses into the ground.”
“Awful dumb of them,” Sam said.
“That’s just it,” Boyd said. “One thing Cestus Calloway isn’t is dumb. I suspect he has horses waitin’ somewhere so they can switch and leave us eatin’ their dust.”
“You don’t say,” Sam said, as if it were a stroke of brilliance and not mere common sense. “Well, you should know about these things. You’re the lawman. All I do is milk cows and raise chickens.”
“There’s more to farmin’ than that,” Boyd said, wondering why his friend was acting sort of peculiar. Reining around an oak in their path, he said, “What did you want to talk about anyhow?”
Sam brought his animal so close their stirrups almost touched. Lowering his voice, he said, “My sis.”
“You know of any other sisters I have that I don’t?”
“I shouldn’t be doin’ this,” Sam said. “But after what she said when you left today, I reckon I should let you know so you can decide what you want to do.”
Another tree forced them to rein apart.
“Want to do about what?” Boyd asked when they rejoined.
“What are we talkin’ about? My sister, you lunkhead.”
“I’m not sure I savvy,” Boyd confessed.
Sam sighed and rubbed his chin. “This is awkward. It’s none of my business, but we’ve been friends awhile now and, well, it’d be a shame for her to go off to Kansas City when I like havin’ her around.”
Boyd had been half concentrating on Harvey Dale, but he switched all his attention to Sam. “Kansas City?”
“That’s where we’re from. From outside it, actually. I wouldn’t go back in a million years. There’s nothin’ there for me. Our folks are dead. We have some kin left, but we hardly know them.”
“Why would Cecelia want to go?”
“She’s got nowhere else. Between you and me, I think she’s kind of lonely, bein’ a widow and all. Then you showed an interest and that perked her up, but you’ve been such a lunkhead about it she’s havin’ second thoughts.”
“That’s twice you’ve called me that.”
“If you don’t want to be called it, you shouldn’t be such a lunk. What does she have to do? Throw herself at you? She told me she’s made it as plain as plain can be that she’d like you to court her, but all you court is our fish.”
“Well, hell,” Boyd said.
“So today she came in and mentioned Kansas City again and I thought I should come into town and tell you to quit straddlin’ the fence. It’s root hog time, if you take my drift.”
“You farmers and your hogs.”
“Don’t change the subject,” Sam said. “Once this bank robbin’ business is over, you’d better put on your Sunday best and come callin’ with flowers in your hand.”
“Why, Sam, you romantic devil, you.”
“Damn it, Boyd. I don’t need a grumpy female on my hands. And if you don’t come courtin’, she’ll fall into a sulk that might last days or even weeks.”
“I can’t imagine Cecelia ever sulkin’,” Boyd said. “She’s always struck me as havin’ a pleasant disposition.”
“Seems to me you have a lot to learn about females. They have two faces. One they put on when they’re out and about, and the other they wear at home.”
“By golly, you’re a philosopher too.”
What People are Saying About This
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