Vengeance is mine; sayeth the Lord.
– Romans 12:19-20 (KJV)
Not unless my guns find them first.
– John Slade, Texas Ranger

 

 

PART ONE
DEATH FROM THE SHADOWS

 

 

 

CHAPTER
1

 

December, 1881, Blanco, Texas

They rode in from the east in the cold dead of night, and topped a ridge overlooking what appeared to be a horse ranch with a bunkhouse, barn and a larger family house. They reined in their horses to a stop. They were professional bounty hunters; without a word they knew the drill.
      The Hatcher brothers stared silently into the darkness, down into the valley below, as the cold wind blew and howled onto their upturned faces, as if in grave anticipation of what was to come.
They saw a small gaslight lamp that hung by the entrance to the large house just barely lighting the area. They didn’t see any lights coming from inside the house, nor the bunkhouse.
      They only used hand gestures that directed each other to go here and there. Again no words were necessary. They were assured that the ex-Texas Ranger was living at the cabin with his wife by the Mexican farmer who led them there. And also – according to the farmer – there were no hired hands on the property. Thereby accomplishing unfettered, what they were there to do.
      That Mexican farmer, whose weathered face was a craggy as the landscape had been in Emilio’s cantina that night, as he overhead two Americano’s talking about an ex-Texas Ranger who he knew was a bounty hunter, that lived just outside of town. He was sure that was the one to whom they were referring.
      So, building up enough courage he gulped down the last of his whiskey, and after using his shirt-sleeve to wipe it across his mouth, he approached them – ever hopeful he’ll make some money with his information.
      Assuring the Americano’s he knew who they were asking about, he was immediately hired to lead them to the cabin – after the promise of a five dollar gold piece for his trouble.
      One of the brothers, Willis Hatcher, the older of the two, a tall bulky man with grey steely eyes, turned slightly toward his younger brother with a hint of a smile. The brother Jerry Hatcher, a smaller version of his brother with deep blue eyes just smiled back. They knew that tonight was going to be easy pickings. They were unafraid, immune to fear, a product of the war and the type of life they have set out for themselves.
      These were men who had hunted and been hunted by professionals and rank amateurs alike, and they were still alive. Both had been shot once or twice and survived. And they bore the scars of that, as did their souls. Everywhere they went, death and destruction were left behind as a grim remainder.
      These were determined men. But that wasn’t always so. After the war, three of them, the Hatcher brothers and a cousin, named Calvin West, came out of the Confederate Army barely alive – their minds destroyed by all that death and war had to offer. Unable to find any type of decent employment, they turned to the only profession worth their salt – bounty hunting.
      But life was hard in the beginning.
      They were a band of twelve desperados, who made a bloody rep’ for themselves through cunning and savage determination. They persevered to the point that no one got in their way. If anyone interfered with them, they were killed for their efforts. But now it was just the two brothers, and the other members of the gang. It was Calvin West who had been shot and killed in a card game, over a month ago – the same man they had been tracking, and now planning on killing tonight.
      Their intended victim was a man named John Slade, who was an experienced ex-Texas Ranger and a legend in Southern Texas. The word was that Slade rode with Leander McNelly’s Rangers down in the Nueces Strip and crossing into Mexico getting involved in a heated gunfight where he was seriously shot. Then later he turned to bounty hunting to make a living. They needed to be extra careful, making sure nothing went wrong.
      The night was dark, with only the moon occasionally obscured by scudding clouds. They worked better at night, and they liked it that way. Before them the valley was wide and spacious and level to some extent. Dismounting, they led the horses to a clump of trees and tied them up. Then in the distance, wolves howled loud and clear. Above the howl the Mexican farmer, Tuco Sanchez, took it upon himself to say, “Senor, my five pesos por favor,” to the older of the two Americano’s.
      The two bounty hunters stared stony eyed at the farmer almost forgetting he was still there. Their eyes revealed a surly confidence. Willis Hatcher flipped back his coat, reached into his vest and pulled out a thin gold coin and without looking at it, flipped it toward the Mexican who failed to catch it in mid-air. He clawed the ground and after a few seconds found it, and slipped it into his trouser pocket. He had no horse and had rode double with one of the Americano’s, as he now ran back the way they’d come, quickly making the sign of the cross across his chest, while thanking La Virgen de Guadalupe, they hadn’t killed him!
      Once the Mexican was gone, the two brothers drew their Colt single action peacemakers, checked the loads and without a word, started walking down the ridge toward the cabin.

 

They say you can’t live in the past that the future always looks brighter since worry and rumination are the foes of the present. He’d listened to those whose ideas at most made no sense till something caused a dramatic change in their own lives. He knew the feeling, and his life would never be the same.
      He still clings to her vision and feels her presence just before he wakes. And when he does, his memories of her come with a flood gate of tears, and at the same time, of hated and revenge.
      They had come at night like most wild animals do, looking for him. And they found him alright – alongside his wife Emily.
      He was always an extremely light sleeper, which saved his life once or twice. So, the moment he knew something was wrong, was when he was woken by the sounds of his bedroom door slowly opening – the rusty door hinges gave them away. He saw them then, silhouetted against the light of the full moon that shone through the bedroom’s only window; two of them with their guns drawn.
      But he was too slow to react.
      “Emily!” he cried out, momentarily halting, dazed, confused and taken by surprise. His gun belt was hanging from the bedpost on the other side of the bed – left their just before their love making – too far for him to reach, draw and defend Emily and himself.
      Suddenly a shot rang out. “No!” Slade cried out.
      The man on the right was the first to shoot as Slade tried to cover his wife with his own body. But again, it was too late. She woke up almost in a sitting position as the bullet entered her forehead, dead before the impact of the slug threw her onto her back, with him on top of her.
      A few seconds may have passed, or less, he had no way of knowing, when he heard one of the two killers shout out just before he fired his gun once again, “This is for our cousin, lawman!”
      John Slade quickly glanced over at his pistols, if only I could reach my gun’s, the thought raced through his mind, and just as he tried reaching for them over his wife’s body, his tranquil bedroom was turned into a bedlam of horror as the intruders fired their guns several times more as John Slade’s body shook with the impact of the heavy caliber bullets. The loud deep booming of the gunshots reverberated off the walls in the small confine of the bedroom, as slug after slug found their marks.
      Then, slowly Slade’s right eye opened momentarily, and through the dim light, he saw the killers backing away out of the cabin. Then as he slowly started losing consciousness and with pain shooting through his entire body, he struggled to rise. But the pain was too intense.
      Bleeding profusely from his wounds and unable to attempt getting up on his elbows once again, he slumped back on top of Emily, crying with his wife’s name dying on his lips as blood oozed from his mouth and nose.
      With a great effort of will, he tried to focus for just a second on his wife.       Suddenly, the pain was gone, as his mind fell into that motionless black void.

* * * *

“Josh, did you hear that?” Lynn Evans asked her husband. But Josh was already up and pulling on his boots, as his horses neighing had woke him.
      “Yeah, something must’ve spooked the horses for them to be so loud,” Josh said. “Maybe a fox, coyotes are a possibility too.”
      “No, before that,” Lynn said. “Sounded far away, and it sounded like gunshots, and I have a nagging feeling something is not right with Emily.”
      “What about Emily?” he asked sensing her worried tone.
      “I’m not sure, just a feeling . . . an intense feeling something is terribly wrong.”
      Evans frowned. “Well, let me get dressed.”
      Once Josh had finished dressing, he reached for his Henry rifle from the side of the bed. He was considering the possibilities of the gunshots – the human factor, not wild animals. He had always trusted on Lynn’s ability to hear sounds before him, since he had lost hearing in his right ear in the war. So, the only other spread near them was four miles away – John and Emily’s cabin, his ranch being the nearest neighbors to Emily’s.
      Not hearing any gunshots, he couldn’t tell from what direction they may have come.       
      So, after making sure his horses were not in any danger, he agreed with his wife that the gunshots may have come from John’s place. But as far as Emily being in trouble, well that he didn’t know. Thinking the worst, they hitched their buckboard wagon and rode out to Emily’s to investigate.
      Once at the cabin, they cautiously reached the front door which was wide open and stopped. The house was very dim and hushed, lit only by dim moonlight coming through an open window. Then, Josh and Lynn stared slowly at each other. Lynn yelled out Emily’s name but got no answer.
      Josh found a kitchen lamp and striking a match to the wick, he reached for his sidearm as he entered the cabin and slowly walked into the bedroom with Lynn directly behind him. Evans was shocked to see the two bodies on the bed, with blood soaking the bed sheets.
      And as Lynn Evans came from behind her husband, her eyebrows rose, stifling a gasp and despite the pain she was feeling in her heart, her eyes were wide, her face ashen. “Oh, my God, no . . .” she gasped again. “Dearest lord!” she said in a tone almost too low to be heard. And as she dropped to her knees grasping and choking, she clasped her face in both her hands.
      “Lynn, are you okay?”
      Lynn began to cry, unable to grasp that her sister was dead. Gazing at her husband and wiping at her eyes, she said, “No, but I’ll cope with this later. Right now we have to take care of them.”
      He heard grief and anger in her voice.
      Josh Evans turned to his wife and said, “Wait outside the room, Lynn.”
      As she left, and after his initial shock, Josh who thought both John and Emily were dead, slowly approached the bodies, and placed the lamp on top of a dresser. Then he tried to lift John up from Emily. In doing so, he heard a faint moaned of pain and John’s arm moving slowly trying to reach out to his wife.
      “Lynn, John is still alive! Get back in here,” he cried out and waited for her to return to the bedroom.
      “What happened to them?” she asked as she stood next to her husband.
      “They’ve both been shot.”
      “Who in God’s name could’ve done such a thing?” Lynn asked.
      “I don’t know, but they need our help.”
      Leaving his wife with John, Josh rode into town to fetch the town marshal and the doctor, but he wasn’t sure John would last long enough for the doctor to do any good.
      Much later, when the doctor was brought in, he got John Slade’s bleeding under control. Doc Brown marveled at the quick thinking Lynn had shown on keeping the wounds clean and the stoppage of bleeding, maybe saving his life. Still unconscious from the loss of blood, Doc Emil Brown pulled out four .45 caliber bullets from John’s right side – sufficient to cause a mortal wound; two from under his right arm, one that had broken two ribs and a head shot that grazed his right temple.
      How John Slade remained living, was a tribute to both the doctor’s fast action and experience, and Lynn’s quick thinking. Later as Slade recuperated, Josh Evans quietly buried Emily on a small hill by a lonely oak tree, facing the cabin.

 

CHAPTER
2

 

Six months later

In the cool night of summer, with the beginning of the first rain storm of the season, John Slade was recovering from his brush with death – as he’d stared into Satan’s cold dead eyes.
      Then a week after he’d been able to fully regain consciousness and had opened his eyes for the very first time, he spoke his wife’s name several times, as he laid in the clean white bed sheets of his bedroom. It was then that Josh Evans walked in and hearing John, and had told him Emily had passed away from her wounds.
He felt something inside of him die, something he’d never felt before. He closed his eyes then opened them staring into nothingness, and he began to heave with each desperate sob. Josh Evans watched as he was powerless to do or say anything in comforting him.
      What John Slade felt, was the knowledge that he would never hold or kiss his wife again! Now only the feelings of pain, heartache and revenge filled his aching heart.
      Throughout his convalescence, the door to his bedroom would open very softly as Lynn or Josh would check in on him.
      As the weeks went by, hope began to appear as he regained his strength. And now, as his mind became clearer, and knowing he wasn’t about to die, only one thing was perfectly clear – find out who murdered his wife, seek vengeance, on whoever was responsible, wherever it led him. But Slade still had no apparent reason other than to get back at him, for his wife to have been killed.
      He remembered the fatal gunshot that entered her forehead, and the bullets that entered his body as he succumbed to their deadly assault, when everything had gone black till, till . . .
      Since he’d been able to stand on his own, Slade had taken his guns out in the back of his ranch, and practice getting his speed and accuracy back, with the feelings of having his two Colt strapped on. As the days went by, he’d gotten back to some semblance of normalcy.
      It was a week after fully recovering from his wounds that he’d considered himself able to ride, when he learned from Lynn, that it was a local Mexican farmer who led two men to his cabin on that cold deadly night. This Lynn had learned from Shaun Miles the town marshal, from one of his many visits.
      So, early one morning, with Slade able to slowly get around on his own, he joined Lynn and Josh for breakfast, when they heard a rider slowly approaching the cabin. With the front door open and daylight filtering through, Josh got to his feet, pulled his Remington revolver and holding it at his side, walked to the door, staring out to see who was coming to visit so early in the morning.
      John Slade was a tall, muscular man in his mid-forties, who’d squinted his grey eyes which glistened with warmth and intelligence, as he stared at the door, waiting to see who the rider was. Then slowly, he pulled his Colt .45 laying it on the kitchen table, as Lynn Evans rose to prepare a place on the breakfast table for their visitor.
      After the rider dismounted and tethered his horse on the hitching post in front of the cabin, Josh Evans, with a faint smile, finally recognized the rider.
      “Come on in, Marshal Miles,” Josh said. “We’ve been expecting you sooner than this.” Then Evans slowly lowered his revolver back into its holster.
      Josh met the marshal at the door, and after shaking hands, Evans followed him into the cabin.
      “I would’ve been here earlier, but town business kept me away till now,” Marshal Shaun Miles said.
      The marshal was a tall rawboned man in his mid-fifties, with wire-rimmed glasses, and a thick white mustache falling just under his lower lip. He wore an old black faded wool felt hat, and a black canvas duster, open in the front. He removed his hat showing his long flowing grey hair. He ambled slowly like a man who has ridden for miles, while his spurs softly jingled behind him into the house. He nodded once to Slade and Lynn Evans, catching a puff of trail dust as he took a seat at the breakfast table.
      Slowly looking at Slade once again, Marshal Miles said, “I see you’re finally able to get up and around again.”
      Slade calmly and quietly, grasped the handle of his Colt .45 and holstered it before anyone saw what he’d done. But the action wasn’t lost on the marshal.
      Slade absently rubbed the right side of his forehead where one of the murdering bushwhacker’s slugs had grazed, and nodded.     “Getting better by the day,” he shrugged. “Reckon I’ll be ready to ride soon enough.”
      With the coffee ready, Lynn Evans placed a mug on the table in front of Miles.
      “Coffee, Marshal?” Lynn asked.
      Marshal Miles turned to face her slowly nodding. “Don’t mind if I do. Wash some of this trail dust from my craw.”
      As Josh came back to the table, Marshal Miles downed his warm coffee at a single gulp, and waited for a refill, which Lynn provided.
      They waited for the marshal to say his piece. Instead, Marshal Miles asked if he could roll a cigarette, and after getting the okay, he pulled out the makings for his smoke. The marshal finally licked the paper, and finished the makings. John Evans fired it up with a kitchen match, which Miles blew out. Then they all waited again for the Marshal to finally speak.
      “So here’s what I’ve been able to find out,” the marshal said, letting out smoke as he leaned slightly forward. “It wasn’t hard finding out who the Mexican farmer was. It was one of my deputies who’d seen the Mexican talking to two cowboys who’d been asking about Slade’s whereabouts. That night, the deputy saw all three men leave town riding due west.”
      Slade was just nodding from what the marshal had said. “Have you spoken with the Mexican farmer?”
      Marshal Miles flinched, taking another draw on his smoke. “Hell man, I know how to do my job,” he said with disappointment in his voice.
      Slade grinned, shrugged and said, “Reckon you do.”
      The marshal stared at him and taking in Slade’s words exhaled smoke and grinned back, shaking his head. “From my deputy and the farmer’s description, I was able to get the identity of the two men. They were Willis Hatcher and his brother Jerry. I’ve dealt with them on a couple of occasions. Those two bounty hunters in the past have brought in several wanted men to our jail.”
      Slade rose and slowly walked back and forth for a second or two, clenching his fists. “Bounty hunters you say.”
      Marshal Miles rose from his chair, dusted off his trousers, finished off his second cup of coffee, and glancing at Slade said, “Worst of the lot. They bring ’em back draped over the saddle, dead, never one alive. I got the judge to sign arrest warrants and I set up wanted posters that got circulated throughout Texas, with a reward of five-hundred dollars apiece – the reward money put up by town folk, your friends and neighbors.”
      John Slade ambled over toward the marshal extending out his hand.
      “Marshal,” Slade said grasping the marshal’s hand in a firm grip, once he was near to him, “much obliged for what you’re done.”
      Miles nodded, “Slade. . . Lynn . . . Josh . . . glad I could help. I got to get back to town. Oh, something I almost forgot, seems them two bounty hunters got themselves a small gang of desperados. There’re suspected of several robberies, along with destruction and murder, but none that can be proven.”
      “Know how many in the gang?” Slade asked, quietly considering the consequences of having to deal with more than the two brothers.
      Marshal Miles shook his head. “No idea. Only that some of them are wanted killers.”
      “Thanks, Marshal,” Slade said.
      “You be careful,” Miles said. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
      “Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind marshal.” But Slade took his words seriously, owing to the look on the marshal’s face.
      Then, Josh Evans walked with the Marshal to his horse. When they arrived at Miles’ gelding, the marshal faced Evans.
      Miles said, “Don’t let John ride out alone. He may kill those two in cold blood or anyone else who stands in his way. I wouldn’t want that to happen.”
      Evans shrugged. “Appreciated Shaun, but I don’t think there’s nothing I can do about that.”
      Once Miles was mounted, he looked down at Evans, a pause. Then Miles gave a single, brusque shake of his head. “Well,” Miles said, “he can’t be left to his own.”
      Evans frowned and nodded. He had already considered the possibility of riding with John, even before the marshal brought it up. But he didn’t say that to him.
      “Do what you must,” the lawman said.
      Squinting from direct glare of the sunshine, Marshal Miles pulled back on the reins, and when he was just about to leave, Miles swiveled in the saddle, raised his arm and waved his good-bye.

 

CHAPTER
3

 

Several weeks later

Every day since they found John and Emily, Josh Evans knew the day would come; the day John would set out in his quest seeking his revenge and exacting his brand of justice on the Hatcher brothers. God knew they deserved to die. But the marshal’s words kept coming back to him. And as yet he hadn’t broach the idea to John. He was thinking more of Lynn than himself – leaving her to tend to herself while he was gone – and for that simple reason, he hadn’t made a decision.
      With the sun slowly setting in the west, Evans decided that he would need to ask Lynn’s opinion. He also decided it would be better to talk to Lynn in the late evening hours during bed time, when he knew it was the best time to talk to her. Also, the next morning, John would be getting ready to leave. He’d waited for the last possible moment.
      He knew Lynn would make better sense of what he should do, and he trusted her judgment. His marriage of four years was also a partnership of sorts, always asking and wanting to hear what she had to say on any given subject, and mostly coming to a joint consensus. And he knew she would voice her objections, if any, or reluctant view for him to ride with Slade. So, Josh Evans waited till they were in bed.
      No sooner had Evans removed his boots and outer clothing and while sitting up in bed, that he set his teeth to rally himself.
      For an instant he fixed his gaze on Lynn. “I’ve been thinking,” he said as he kept his voice low.
      Lynn slowly pulled him toward her. “Oh, what about?”
      As he laid next to her, he momentarily closed his eyes, “About riding out with John in the morning. You know, try to keep him from doing something he’ll regret or maybe get thrown in jail for.”
      Lynn leaned way back on her pillows, with her hands behind her head, smiling.
      “Ah, about that, guess I should tell you then that I was thinking the same thing.”
      “Oh?”
      “Yes, you should go with him. You’re good with a gun, and in a fight. Also, you’re a damn good tracker. Yes, you should tell him.”     She wanted payback, and retribution for the death of her sister. And two men were better than one, when it came to those two brothers.
      Josh thought this over. It made a hell of a lot of sense. But he was worried about his wife. “How about you Lynn, you can’t stay here by yourself.”
      “I thought about that too,” she replied. “I’ll go into town and get a room at the hotel till you get back.”
      Josh shook his head. “I. . . I just don’t know.”
      “Please don’t worry, I’ll be fine. You have to go,” Lynn said in a firm, almost pleading voice, not without a tinge of pride for her husband. She was willing to do whatever it took to see that justice, in whatever form, came to her sister’s killers.
      But, both of them were worried about John. Having lost a loved one in so tragic a way can leave a momentous effect on one’s mind. And they were both bracing for his reaction of complete and utter violence that he could and will inflict on those two desperadoes.
      They both lapsed into silence.
      Then with a noticeable sigh, Josh rested his head on her shoulder, and wrapped his arms around her and quietly said. “All right then, I’ll talk to John in the morning.”

* * * *

It was mid-morning, as the sun blazed as if it was high noon, John Slade made himself busy with his horses, tightening the cinches and making sure his gear on the pack horse was secured. He’d spent time making sure all was ready before he’d set out.
      Then satisfied that his horses were ready for the trail, he glanced toward his wife’s garden, sighed and slowly walked over to it. Bending over slightly, he plucked some of Emily’s favorite flowers and headed over to her grave to say his good-bye.
      Since her murder, Slade had become tormented by his own perceived notion that his past had finally caught up to him. Deep down he knew Emily ultimately paid the price for his violent past.
      Small wisps of thin clouds of dust hung everywhere up and down the dusty road till he arrived at the site of her grave under the oak tree. Slade removed his hat knelt, and placed the flowers by her head stone, which read: Emily Annabelle Slade, beloved wife of John Slade, born 1855 – killed 1881.
      Silently, he said a little prayer, drying his tear-filled eyes as he finished. He stood up, gazed down on the grave, and said to his wife, “Rest now, honey. See, I brought you a few of your favorite flowers to keep you company.”
      Then he lifted his gaze momentarily toward the cabin and saw Josh Evans standing on the front porch. Dropping his gaze once again to her grave he said, “Josh and Lynn will look after you. Don’t think I’ll be coming back again to take care of you. Good-bye, honey. I’ll search for you in the heavens once my time is up, then we can be together once again.”
      Pulling his silver pocket watch from his vest, he opened its cover and read the time on the piece as 11:45 a.m. Although some of the silver had tarnished some, he was still able to read the etching as the initials L.K.S that belonged to his father, Larry Kincaid Slade, on its cover. Snapping it shut, he remembered when his father had given him the piece when he turned seventeen, as a tear slowly rolled down his cheek. Then, staring at his wife’s grave once again, he said, “Goodbye, my love.”

 

As soon as Slade had settled down for his last cup of coffee before setting out, Josh Evans sat down across from him at the breakfast table – and setting down his cup of coffee, he stared long and quietly at John.
      John Slade stared slowly and calmly at Josh figuring he had something on his mind that needed saying.
      “You got something you want to say?” John asked, raising his coffee cup for a sip.       Keeping his gaze on John, Evans said, “I’ll be riding out with you, help out on the tracking and such and. . .”
      “Whoa, hang on, mister,” John said cutting him off. “You can’t come; you have a wife to take care of.”
      “Well, I’ve already spoken to Lynn. And we made plans for her to stay in town for the time being.”
      “You did?” John said without taking his eyes off of Evans.
      “Yeah, and I want to be there when you take care of Emily’s killers. So, what about it? You’ll need another gun that’s for sure.”
      John response came fast. “No!” John said contemplatively, staring at Evans.
Studying Slade’s expression for a moment, Evans said, “But why?”
      “Your job is to stay here with your wife. And I won’t hear any more on this.”
      “You can’t do this alone John,” Evans said. “You could get yourself killed before you finish.”
      John glared at him. “You see, it’s all a matter of perspective. I think of myself as being dead and then nothing else matters except what I have to do!”
      Josh Evans rose shaking his head. “You’re a damn fool, John Slade!”
      “Reckon so.”

They watched in silence as they stood on the front porch of John Slade’s cabin, as the morning sun slowly made its way into the heavens, as John rode down the dusty road and over the horizon.
      Josh Evans closed his eyes as he sighed, remembering his conversation with John, when he had said no to his proposition of accompanying him on the trail. But still he felt he should’ve gone in spite of himself.
      He opened his eyes and noticed Lynn staring up at him and once their eyes met she said, “You should’ve rode out with him.”
      Josh considered it all of ten seconds.
      “I tried,” he said. “What more would you have me done?”
      Lynn Evans shrugged and pulled her eyes away from his; her face devoid of any smile.
      If he read anything from her sad eyes, it was her object disappointment in him. Josh nearly asked about his responsibilities to her, but let it slide.
      “We, eh . . . need to lock up and head on home,” was all he managed to say.

 

CHAPTER
4

 

Two days later, and 40 miles east of Kyle, Texas

John Slade woke with a start – the whinnying of his horse woke him right up. And as his hand automatically grasped one of his Colt .45’s firmly in his hand, he quickly took stock of his surroundings, as a sliver of moonlight peek through the darkened night with only the dying embers of his camp fire to light up his otherwise dark nightmares.
      Cautiously, still grasping his peacemaker, Slade started looking left and right of him into the night. With no dangers close by, he returned the .45 to its holster and stared at the pale mare.
      What spooked her was still a mystery to him. It could have been a snake or a fox, he thought feeling the cold chill in the air making him squint trying to focus.
      “I reckon whatever it was, is long gone there, horse,” he said smiling, as he was looking over at his horse. He had tethered his mare and pack horse to a small tree very near to the spring, leaving just a little lead to allow them to drink and graze.
      Just before night fall, Slade chose the nearby spring which afforded excellent cover and built a fire that was now almost out. He had unrolled his bedroll near his horses for protection against any dangers. And being that close to his horses, he had the added protection from that quarter as well. Now just before daylight, he had the fire burning once again, and started coffee.
      Then an unfamiliar sound of possible danger caused both horse’s head to rise, listening. Then the noise came to Slade as he heard the cry of a coyote far out in the distance. His mare began a whinny noisy warning of sorts.
      “Settle down, horse,” Slade said. “That coyote is too far to cause us any harm.” A sixth sense told him someone or something was on his trail. But, he’ll worry about that later.
      Sitting on his saddle by the fire, and taking a sip of the warm coffee, his mind wandered back to that day, six months ago, when his life almost came to an end, and the last time he had seen his wife alive, but more importantly, to the day he had met Emily.
      He could still remember seeing her for the first time as if it was yesterday. . .
      John Slade served in the Confederate Army since the moment he turned 18, just a year before his parents perished in a freak house fire. Being the only son, and with no ties to hold him down it was in 1862, that he volunteered for the War of Northern Aggression. Then in 1865 at the end of the war, he roamed from ranch to ranch doing cattle drives and cow punching. But it wasn’t till 1867 that he joined the Texas Rangers. There, he was guaranteed a horse, a saddle and three meals a day. It was there he gained a reputation for his quick as lightning draw with his two Colt Peacemakers and never missed at what he aimed at. . .
      A slow smile crossed John Slade’s lips, as he paused, picturing his wife’s warm beautiful eyes, and her warm hands as she held his hand.
      And he remembered too the first smile she ever given him. . .
      Having made a name for himself for his lightning draw and quick thinking, and his uncanny ability of bringing back alive those he’d gone after, it was in late, September 1875 that he was chosen to join Leander McNeely’s “Special Force” or a quasi-military brand of the Texas Rangers to rid south Texas of Mexican bandits and gunmen at the ‘Nueces Strip.’ He was one of the youngest Rangers to serve in McNeely’s force. Then in November, 1875 with McNeely’s Rangers, they rode into the stronghold of General Juan Salinas at the Rincon De Cucharas “The Teaspoon Corner” outpost where, in a heated gunfight McNeely was wounded in both hands, while Slade, two steps away, sustained gunshots to his left arm, right shoulder and left leg.
      While convalescing in a Brownsville, Texas hospital, Slade met his future wife Emily, a very attractive 20-year old with hazel eyes, and soft brunette hair, with a richly tanned face, possessing an almost hourglass figure. She was a volunteer nurse who without any specialized medical training spent all of her time tending the sick and wounded. She was the first to tend to his wounds the moment he was brought in, and after his operation, she always came back to him, spending more time than necessary – always changing his bandages and feeding him. After several weeks, they had gotten to know each other quite well. Then, one thing led to another and they had fallen in love. One night as they laid in a hotel bed, he proposed to her and they married the next day.
      Slade momentarily closed his eyes, turning his thoughts toward Lynn and Josh. As yet again he owed his life to another woman – Lynn, Emily’s twin sister. She had come to the cabin with her husband Josh Evans, saving his life. She had stopped some of the bleeding and had continuously changed his bloody bandages and forced fed him liquids.
      Now once again he felt so alone, unsure what his life would become without her, as his mind kept drifting back to that horrible night, and of the day his parents died. . .
      After the fire that consumed his parents, so long ago, Slade stayed just long enough to bury them and sell the ranch, which his parents worked for year’s eking out a living raising and selling cattle and horses. He remembered having gone hunting with his father’s old Springfield trapdoor rifle his father gave him for his seventeenth birthday. And after being so far away from the house, Slade returned to the devastation the fire had caused, unable to even attempt to save them.
      The noise of his horses seemed to rouse Slade from his reminiscence. He raised his head, his eyes glittering, staring. He blinked. His vision cleared somewhat and his eyes dark, as they took in his surroundings again. He needed to get back on the trail soon.
      Slade figured that in all probability he wouldn’t make it back alive, he was prepared for it. But he was willing to take that chance, and nothing could stop him from what he knew was the right thing to do. He had a plan – a plan that if it went in his favor, he felt it had a good chance of success. But it had to done right. He felt a greater confidence than before he set out on the trail.
      Confident that it should keep him out of jail for what had to be done – if he lived through it – it was the reason his first stop was in Austin.
      Now with the trail before him and behind, Slade rose to his full height of six feet, wearing his old grey flat crowned Stetson, his red bandanna, a pair of old faded buckskins and a rawhide vest under his old black trail duster.
      He buckled on his gun-belt, tied down his right-hand holster which carried one of his two Colt .45’s and his second holster on his left front in cross draw fashion – all old Texas Rangers favored. Then striking camp, and securing his packhorse and after saddling up his horse, he turned and very nimbly, swung up into his saddle, then slowly he turned glancing slowly behind him. He still had the nagging feeling that someone or something was on his trail.
      So, not seeing anything or anyone behind him in the distance, and not hurrying his horses, Slade slowly set out at a slow gait.

 

CHAPTER
5

 

He’d been climbing through a range of hills for better part of an hour, and after a few minutes, he reined up on the summit of a low hill and looked down at the gray expanse ahead and beyond. Ahead of him stretched a shallow valley, and beyond that Austin just a seven-hour ride away.
      But, it was behind him that gave him pause. He swiveled in his saddle raising his arm shielding his eyes from the sunlight, and saw a smudge of dust against the cloudless sky. It was too far away to tell who was dogging his trail; his nagging feeling finally evidencing itself.
      John Slade dismounted and reached into his saddle bags for his brass binoculars. Then removing his Stetson, he placed it on the saddle’s horn. Extending the binoculars to its full length, he tried to focus on the rider far away. He saw the lone rider then, but still couldn’t make out who it was. He returned the binoculars, put on his hat, and swung back into his saddle.
      His horse shifted restlessly beneath him, as it snorted.
      “Yes horse, I see it too.”
      Damn horse has better sight than me, Slade thought smiling.
      Stroking the side of his horse’s head, Slade said, “Reckon will need to do something about that rider.” He knew full well that in this part of the country there were only bushwhackers, horse thieves, and whiskey peddlers roaming the area.
      “Just have to find out which one it was,” Slade said out loud.
He thought, maybe the stranger was just biding his time to waylay him once he’d made camp. In that case, he may just have to let his guns do the talking for him. He gave his horse a gentle kick setting it off at a trot. Far ahead he spied a large boulder, which gave him an idea. But then he figured, it was a good five or six miles before he got to it, and before he could put his idea to the test.

 

It was a hot late afternoon; a slight breeze out of the east blew through the landscape, when he reined up on a low hill, just before reaching the boulder he’d spotted a few miles back. He dismounted and led his horses around the other side of the large boulder. Once he had the horses tied down to the side of a tree, he pulled his half-full canvas water bag, uncapped it and took a mouthful. He then cupped his left hand and poured some water onto it, and splashed it over his face feeling the wet water slightly refreshing, and cleaning out some of the trail dust from his eyes.
      Coming around to the right side of his horse, he pulled his lever action Winchester rifle from its rifle boot, and walked over to the side of the boulder and waited for the stranger to ride past.
      He figured he’d been waiting for a better part of an hour, and during that time he started thinking about all the folks he’d killed. He didn’t want to kill whoever was following him, unless he wasn’t given a choice. He thought about his violent past which began shortly after the death of his parents. They had been God fearing folks; they were a little distant but, never cruel but loving and caring. And throughout that time he’d been raised in the teachings of his faith, and his parents were proud of the son they’d raised. Yes he turned out all right, up and till their deaths.
      He knew the Hatcher brothers only by reputation. Some say they were worst then the outlaws they captured. Killers themselves, robbers, some would say. But those allegations remained unproven. Others say they had gotten away with murder for far too long.
      These were the thoughts flooding through his mind, ever since he’d been told who’d murdered his wife. Killing was a condition of war and of his days riding with Leander McNeely’s Rangers after Mexican bandits. But it was gambling which was his only vice. He remembered back in October while in El Paso, when he’d killed his last man – a card cheat. He called him out for it. The man never had a chance though, and as the card-cheat went for his gun, Slade’s hand flew to his cross holster, drew his .45 and shot him once between the eyes – dead before the man pulled his gun half-way!
      Then from behind him, he heard his horse snorting, like warning him of immediate danger. Slade turned his head glancing over to his horse. “Thanks, horse, but I hear him too. Now can you keep quiet, before he hears you too?”
      His horse tossed his head high and then back down once. Slade just shook his head smiled, and turned back to the business at hand.
      Twenty minutes later, as the stranger road past the edge of the boulder, John Slade stepped out and fired a warning shot over his head. The rider reined in his horse to a complete stop. “Hold it right there, hombre. Turn around slowly and keep your hand away from your gun, or the next bullet will be in ‘ya.”
      “John . . . John, is that you?”
      For a moment Slade froze. “Who the hell . . .”
      “It’s me Josh Evans,” he cried as he turned his horse slowly around to face John Slade.
      “You son of a . . . you could’ve gotten yourself killed.”
      Coming face-to-face with Evans, Slade lowered his rifle, and drawing a deep breath nodded slowly. “Get down off your horse and follow me around this boulder.”
      There was only a submissive sigh from Evans, as he dismounted and joined Slade alongside Slade’s horses.
      Once there, Slade shoved his Winchester into the saddle’s rifle boot, and turned to face Josh Evans, as he watched him tie his horse to a tree branch. Then removing his hat, Slade figured this was not good. No, not good at all.
      Slade, just wasn’t ready to ride with anyone, certainly not with Josh Evans.
But perhaps, and yet, well. . .
      “So, what are you doing here?” Slade asked, already knowing the answer.
      Evans turned to face him, swallowing hard once he met Slade’s eyes.
      “Came to join ya, and I’m not taking a no for an answer this time,” Evans said. “I’ve been tracking ya ever since you left, wasn’t hard, you leaving a clear trail and all to follow.”
      “Yeah, well wasn’t expecting anyone on my trail,” Slade said.
Evans simply said, “Well John, I’m here, so let’s do this together.”
      Slade reckoned that two guns could be better than one. Certainly in a firefight if it came to that. But he was already feeling a sense of guilt if anything were to happen to Josh. Never would hear the end of it from Lynn, he thought.
      “Can you handle that gun of yours?”
      Evans chuckled, “Better than most.”
      “I dunno,” Slade said shaking his head. “Things may not end well for me.”
      There was a pause.
      Evans nodded.
      “I get your meaning. But that’s why together, we can make a difference.”
      It was the same argument as before. Slade drew a great rasping breath coming to a decision, “Okay then, since you’re here, let’s make camp here for the night.”
      And as a slow smile crossed his face, Evans nodded once again.

* * * *

With the late evening sun on her back, Lynn Evans rode back into town, as she’s done since her husband left to be with John Slade and always riding past the marshal’s office – letting him know she was back in town. Every morning she would leave to tend her cattle and horses, making sure the ranch were secured, and then return to her hotel room before night-fall.
      And through the marshal’s window, Shaun Miles saw Lynn Evans riding back and heading to the stables. With a smile on his lips, he picked up a telegraph wire off his desk, left there for him earlier that day, and addressed to Lynn. He stood up, strapped on his gun belt, picked up his hat, and walked out his office to join her.
      No sooner had Lynn settled in her horse at the livery stables, and after stepping out through the sliding doors, she saw Marshal Miles heading in her direction. He waved at her and shouted for her to wait up for him.
      “Lynn,” Miles said in a very pleasant voice just before he came face to face with her. “Saw you riding back from your ranch. All okay there?”
      Lynn stopped and turned to face him. “All is good, so far. What brings you over?” she said the moment he stopped just in front of her.
      “Got something for you,” Miles said as he handed her the telegram. “The telegraph clerk brought it over when he couldn’t find you in your hotel, thought it better to leave it with me.”
      She took the telegram and opened it, and saw it was from her husband. Immediately, her face beamed softly, as joy crept into her eyes. She concentrated on the few words;

            
            MADE CONTACT WITH JOHN.
            ALL’S WELL.
            LOVE YOU, JOSH.

      She smiled and glanced at Shaun Miles, and wiped a little tear from her eye. “It’s from Josh,” she said.
      There was a short pause.
      “Is everything okay?”
      “Oh, yes, sorry,” she said. “He’s with John in the town of Oak Hill.”

CHAPTER
6

 

The town of Oak Hill, Texas

Billy Ray Duncan was a large man and muscular with a bull neck and broad shoulders. To anyone who didn’t know him they could have easily mistaken him as a prizefighter, although, he’d never once set foot into a ring. Dressed like most local cowhands, he was a rawboned man in his late twenties, with eyes dark as coals. His Colt .45 rode low on his left thigh – tied down holster.
      Billy Ray had ridden into town on his way to San Antonio late last night, and having just finished at a card game in one of the two local saloon’s, big Joe Lineman’s saloon, he stepped out through its swinging doors as his spurs sounded a low jingling noise behind him as he came to a stop just outside the saloon’s swinging doors. It was then he saw two riders approaching from the south, leading a packhorse.
      It was a hot dusty morning, and as the two riders passed the saloon heading toward the livery stables, Duncan followed the riders and rubbed the scar across his right side of his face. He had the notion of maybe knowing one of the riders, but he wasn’t sure. Though he thought the man looked oddly familiar.
      With two buckboards slowly making their way down the center of the street and another horseman blocking his view of the strangers, he quickly decided that a closer look would satisfy his curiosity. He still couldn’t get a clear view as the stranger rode on his partner’s left side.
      He figured sooner or later they would show up in the saloon, and when they did, he’d be here waiting for them. So thinking, he stepped back on the boardwalk, pulled up a chair, sat, propped his feet on the hand rail in front of him, and with the awning shading him from the sun, he settled down to wait.

 

John Slade and Josh Evans made their way on the further side of Main Street just approaching the saloon as they kept their horses at an even gait – not in a hurry to get where they were going. Their target was the livery stables, then the main mercantile and dry goods store for needed supplies.
      Just before approaching Lineman’s saloon, which featured a second story brothel where four wag-tail prostitutes were standing on its porch, Slade a felt a twinge on the back of his neck – like maybe someone was watching him. Slowly glancing left and right, he saw several men and two women on the boardwalk going about their business. Then he made out a cowboy sitting in a chair left side of the saloon doors, casually staring over at them.
      If pressed he couldn’t tell why he kept staring.
      It certainly wasn’t unusual at this time of the morning, but something about the cowboy didn’t sit right with him. He had a nagging feeling he’d seen the man before. Where and how were the questions?
In that brief glance, his first thought was the cowboy didn’t strike him as a cow-puncher, and his low slung tied down holster gave that away. That in itself said maybe a gunslinger.
      And Slade knew the type. He’d arrested and killed more of his share of such hombres once upon a time as a Texas Ranger and bounty hunter.
      But, there was no point getting agitated over it, he had business to attend to.
They rode straight past the saloon, the telegraph office, and the mercantile store, and arrived at the livery stables. Meeting up with the sable boy, a fourteen-year old lean Negro with big hands, Slade and Evans dismounted.
      “Need to get our horses rubbed down and fed. We’ll come back for ’em in a few hours’ time, how much?”
      “Don’t rightly know, sir. Mr. Yates, he’s the owner, be back in a few minutes. He’s finishing up his breakfast.”
      Slade figured he should pay in advance. So, he reached into his pocket and pulled out some bills.
      “Okay, here’s two dollars,” Slade said, “Should take care of it. Make sure your boss gets it. And if it’s more, I’ll pay as soon as we pick ’em up.”
      “Yes sir. I’ll take good care of them, sir.”
      “Good,” Slade said. “I’ll be either at the jail or the local bath house in case your boss needs me.”
      The Negro kid just shrugged and nodded.
      Slade then, reached into his vest pocket, withdrew a silver piece and flipped it to the stable boy.
      The Negro caught it in mid-air smiled and said, “Thank you, sir.”
      Slade and Evans both smiled and just before leaving, they removed their Winchesters, saddle bags and sidled over to the door.
      “John,” Evans said. “So, I’m going over to the telegraph office and let Lynn know we’re together.”
      John smiled a little. “Good idea.” John’s voice was low, and soft with a noticeable trace of concern in it. “When you’re finished let’s meet up at Lineman’s saloon, could use a drink or two.”
      Josh nodded. “Okay, I could use a shot of whiskey right about now. I’ll see ya there.”
At the stable’s sliding doors, John and Josh Evans parted ways, with Slade heading toward the sheriff’s office and jail. He was hoping to hear news about the Hatcher brothers and their gang, if there was any, while Josh made his way to the Western Union office.
      As Slade walked down the boardwalk, he tried to shade himself from the onslaught of the hot morning sun, and as he came under the awnings, he was thankful for the shade, feeling better now that he wasn’t directly under the rays of the punishing sun. He carried his rifle in his left hand, and his saddle bags draped over his right shoulder, as he walked alone.
      A couple of towns-folks walked by nodding, and he returned their nods he smiled as he passed them.
      He’d been in town several times in the past, and made friends here, like Sheriff Brad Chatwood. The sheriff was into his late sixties and still a man to be reckoned with in a gunfight, and his age didn’t stop him from making serious arrests. But, he had three deputies to take care of the heavy work just in case.
Walking past the hotel and restaurant, Slade’s stomach started to growl, as he remembered he’d not eaten breakfast. But first things first, he figured – the sheriff’s office. Then after the saloon, a much-needed bath with a good size breakfast afterward.
      Arriving at the sheriff’s office which was also the city jail, Slade came to a stop at its door. Feeling an itch at the back of his neck again, he slowly turned to face behind him, when he spotted the same cowboy at the entrance to Lineman’s saloon. The cowboy was still in his chair, and Slade was almost certain he knew the man, but still was unable get a good look at his face from so far away.
It will come to me, he thought.
      The town of Oak Hill was mostly a mix of white and Mexican folks, with some Negro’s, for a population in or around three hundred souls. The area around the town was mostly cattle ranches. To his left and right, were several smaller wooden type two story businesses, mostly owned by the town’s cattle owners.
      Slade stroked his days’ old growth of beard and turning back to the door he grasped the door handle, turned it and swung it in. Then removing his Stetson, he walked right in.
      Sheriff Brad Chatwood, rose from behind his oak desk, once he recognized who his visitor was, and came around meeting Slade halfway into his office.
      Sheriff Chatwood was a white-haired balding man. The lawman was an ex-city marshal in the East, who moved to Texas after the Civil War with his wife and three small children. In his long sleeve white shirt and tan cowhide vest with his star pinned on the right side, Chatwood shook Slade’s outstretched hand. “Glad to see ya John. Heard you were in town. Wondered when you’d come a calling.”
      John sighed. “Yeah, well just rode in as it is.” As he spoke he glanced around the office, and stopped as he gazed on the far left wall, just at the entrance to the jail’s cell block.
      The sheriff followed John’s gaze. “Wanted posters for the Hatcher brothers came in last week.”
      To this, Slade walked over to the posters, and once his eyes fell on the poster of the two brothers, he removed it from the board.
      “Mind if I keep this?” Slade asked.
      “You’re welcome to it,” Sheriff Brad Chatwood said. “Pull up a chair, John.”
      Tucking the poster into his saddle bags, and walking back toward the sheriff’s oak desk, John laid his Winchester and saddle bags on the wooden plank floor next to a chair, pulled one up and sat, as the sheriff sat back down behind his desk.
      His hands free now, he pulled out a small cigar from his shirt pocket, which he lighted and inhaling blew out a steady stream of smoke.
      “Sorry to hear about your wife,” sheriff Chatwood said.
      “Yeah,” John said after a brief silence.
      The sheriff rubbed his bald head and turned a quiet glance toward his visitor. Then pulling out a bottle of whiskey from his top right-hand drawer and two shot glasses, he poured the drinks and pushed a glass toward Slade. “Wanna tell me what happened?”
      John Slade turned his head away from the sheriff, as though not wanting to go through the horror of that night, as a small tear streamed down his cheek. He quickly dried it, then turning back he picked up the glass and downed it a one quick gulp and said,     “Thanks for the drink. Not much to tell. They came at night, broke into my cabin, killed my wife, and left me for dead.”
      Sheriff Brad Chatwood, downed his whiskey as well then asked, “How you faring on, son?”
      “I don’t rightly know. Only one thing keeps me going, and sooner or later I’ll make it right.”
      “Hell John, I didn’t mean. . .”
      John Slade exhaled some smoke. “You didn’t, sheriff,” Slade said cutting him off.
      Chatwood, nodded slowly.
      Slade changing the subject, gesturing toward a window that overlooked Main Street said. “I would like to get your take on a cowboy sitting in front of Lineman’s saloon, sheriff.”
Both Slade and Chatwood stood up at the same time, with Slade leading the way toward the window, as Chatwood sauntered after him.
      At the window, as they both gazed out, Chatwood nodded. “Yes, I’m very familiar with him. His name is William Ray Duncan, but most call him Billy Ray. But he’s not a cowboy around these parts. He roams with the Hatcher brothers time to time. He’s a bounty hunter that passes through here, once in a while.”
      “That name rings a bell,” John said. “Does he have a scar on his face?”
      “As a matter of fact, yes he does at that.”
      Slade flinched and took another deep draw on his cigar. “Then I know him. Several years back, had a run in with some cattle rustlers down San Antone way. Us Rangers killed three and four got away. One of them was Duncan.”
      “Want me to haul his ass into jail?”
      Slade managed to keep a deadpan look about him. He wanted to take care of Duncan himself without the sheriff’s interference.
      John shook his head. “It wouldn’t do any good now.”

 

CHAPTER
7

 

A few minutes later, Josh Evans slowly made his way from the Western Union office. He’d wired Lynn and had waited for a reply. When it came, she’d said for him to be careful and come back home to her in one piece.
      He knew Lynn was safe back home, and with the marshal keeping tabs on her, he felt she was very secure. But he was concerned with Slade. John was a firecracker just waiting to explode. He had to try and keep him from doing something stupid he’ll regret or go to jail for. It was a tall order.
      “Just hope I could live up to it,” he said out loud.
      Now as he headed toward the saloon and the meet with John, he stayed on the boardwalk sheltered under the awnings, trying hard to stay out of the burning sun. It wasn’t high noon yet, and it felt like it was pure hell – as if the devil himself was breathing on the town, and down his neck!
      It was a typical morning, with towns-folk going about their business on both sides of the street, as he cast smiles to those that passed him. Then, he tipped his hat to two pretty young ladies walking shoulder to shoulder. And as he stopped to let them past, they giggled and returned his smile.
      Besides the hot morning sun, dust blew everywhere. At one point, he turned his back on the dust being blown hard directly at him. Then once the wind died down he turned back and started on his way again.
As he approached a set of stairs, he took the three steps up level with the boardwalk and approached a cowboy leisurely sitting by the saloon’s swinging doors. Coming up close to the cowboy, Evans said, “Good morning to you, kind a hot to be sitting out here.”
      Duncan immediately recognized the new comer, as the partner who rode in earlier with the hombre whose identity he needed to establish, before meeting up with his own partner who was due in this morning. Hell, there could be a reward out for the hombre, he thought. But more importantly, he needed to know the identity of the stranger. And who better to ask then the partner who stood face to face with him.
      Duncan nodded, “Been waiting on someone. Guess he’ll show later on. Mind if I join you for a drink?”

 

“Thanks for keeping me company and having some drinks, mister,” Duncan said.
      They’d stepped up to the bar once in the saloon, as other patrons glanced their way. The saloon had two Faro card games and a poker game in full swing, off to far left corner, as several cowboy’s looked on waiting their turns at the tables. A couple of local whores were milling about with four cowboy’s hanging at the bar, as an old man at the piano played an old E.P. Christy and Stephen Forster medley ‘Old Folks at Home’ or better known as ‘Swanee River’ – off-keyed.
      Josh Evans shrugged and then reaching into his pocket placed two gold coins on the bar, “Barkeep two whiskeys, one for my partner here and the other for me. Leave the bottle.”
      Once their whiskey bottle was placed in front of them, Evans poured two drinks. They both drained their glasses and Duncan refilled them.
      “So, tell me, where ya coming from?” Billy Ray Duncan asked as he slowly sipped his drink.
      Josh Evans thought about the question. He didn’t see any threat from the stranger, and why would he? He’d never met him before.    The stranger was just having a peaceful conversation as they drank. Nothing wrong with that, he thought.
      “My partner and me,” Evans replied. “We came up from Blanco and we’re headed to Austin.”
      Billy Ray Duncan reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a cigar and was ready to light it, when Evans struck a match to the cigar.
      “Much obliged, partner,” Duncan said as he slowly inhaled and blew out a steady stream of smoke.
      “So what they call ya?” Evans asked.
      “The name’s Billy Ray.”
      “I’m Evans, Josh Evans.”
      “I’m glad to meet you, Josh.”
      “Likewise.”
      “So, who’s your partner I saw you ride in with? He looked a little familiar.”
After a slight pause, Evans reached for the bottle, filled his glass and once again drained it. Placing the glass on the bar top, Evans turned a quiet glance at Billy Ray. “Maybe you heard of him . . . John Slade.”
      Duncan gaped back at Evans. He was taken completely by surprise. For the briefest moment, his drink and his cigar were all but forgotten. His voice took on a stony edge as he inquired, “The Texas ranger, down the Nueces strip? Heard say he got himself killed recently.”
      Evans turned to him with a smile. “Exaggerated stories friend. He’s much alive and kicking.”
      “So, you’re telling me your partner is John Slade? Sure like to meet up with the famous Ranger.”
      Evans grinned at the reference of famous to John, as he glanced over to him. “No problem. He’s due here anytime soon.”
      What a stroke of luck, Duncan thought. Now I can finish what my boss started, and maybe get famous in the bargain.
      He was looking forward to shooting it out then and there with the Ranger.

 

CHAPTER
8

 

Thirty minutes later, as he exited the sheriff’s office, John Slade noticed a solitary horseman slowly making his way to the stables. It was nothing unusual. But, as a ex-lawman he sized up the rider. And, in his judgment he concluded the man didn’t appear to be a farmer nor was he dressed like a local cowboy.
      Maybe a drifter, Slade thought.
      The stranger rode high in the saddle attesting to his tall height. And, as he kept watching the rider, something about him yelled out – gunfighter!
      Now he thought back to Billy Ray Duncan.
      What are the chances, he thought, of two desperados in town at the same time? Not good, not good at all. He’d never believed in coincidences, and wasn’t about to start.
      As a slight hot steady wind swept through the windblown streets, John Slade left those thoughts behind him. He’d left his saddle bags and Winchester with the sheriff, and now standing just outside the lawman’s office front door, Slade drew his two .45s, checked the loads, cocked them both and returned them to their holsters, without securing the hammer thong which secured his .45s in their holsters.
      He was locked, cocked and ready to go! He knew one of them wasn’t getting out of that saloon alive!
      The air blew hot across his face, as he stepped down the two steps to the street. To his right, he noticed the morning stage steadily making its way to the stage depot on the other side of town. A dust devil spun its way behind the stage and the almost empty street. He waited for the stage and dust devil to pass him up, before heading toward the saloon.

 

At the entrance to Lineman’s saloon, John Slade grasped the tops to the swinging doors and looked over into the saloon without yet walking in.
      He noticed two men standing at the bar, Billy Ray Duncan quietly having a drink, with Josh Evans, who stood by on Duncan’s left side.
      There were roughly twenty or so patrons in the saloon, with busy card games to his left side. Three whores were walking, talking to the patrons hopefully getting one of them up to their rooms. They didn’t appear to be having any luck – no takers.
      Stepping in through the doors, Slade took three small steps into the saloon and came to a stop.
      “Billy Ray Duncan!” Slade said. His voice was more than a low gruff growl. “You and I have unfinished business.” Slade’s voice sounded as a challenge of sorts, as it gained the attention of everyone in the saloon, as the tinkling piano came to an abrupt stop.
      Billy Ray Duncan ignored the man for a brief moment, and while still not directly looking over to the man who’s reflection he saw off the bar’s mirror, he knew already to be John Slade. He placed his whiskey glass on the bar top, while his left hand slowly undid the rawhide loop to his holstered .45 and he said, “And who says we do?”
      “Figure, you already know who I am.”
      With his left hand lightly touching the butt of his gun, and turning to face his opponent, Duncan faced Slade head on; he locked eyes with Slade for a tense moment. Then, taking several steps to his rear-right, he came up behind Josh Evans and stopped.
      In that brief moment, Slade knew Duncan was ready for a fight, but he wanted Duncan alive. Here was his one opportunity to find out the whereabouts of the Hatcher brothers.
      Duncan, not sure Slade had come for a gunfight, was all too happy on giving him one. He knew Slade’s reputation of having a lighting fast draw, but he too was fast. We’re going to see who’s faster, that’s for sure, he thought.
      But, it didn’t turn out just that way.
      “Yeah,” drawled Duncan spitting off to the side, “reckon I do.”
      Slade immediately noticed Duncan placing his hand on the butt of his gun, as he too slid his hand by the butt of his cross holstered .45.
      Noticing the position Duncan had taken behind Evans; Slade said quietly, his eyes riveted on Duncan, “Josh step away from the bar.”
      In the meantime, the bar patrons started drifting towards the far left side of the saloon away from the shooting that was sure to come.     The card games stopped. The whores quickly walked over and stood behind the men, in contemplation of the gunfight which was about to erupt.
      The saloon became very quiet as a grim sense of death hung over it, and rightly so!
Josh Evans slowly started to turn away from the bar. Suddenly, Duncan drew his side-arm firing a shot into Evans’ side, hoping he’d get an edge on Slade.
      John Slade was caught momentarily off guard by the evil deed Duncan just committed. Slade sneered. “Why you son of bitch!”
      Then, before Evans completely dropped onto the floor, Slade, living up to his reputation, drew his .45 lightning fast, just as Duncan fired a second shot that flew wildly to Slade’s right side, shooting out the glass window behind him. And before Duncan could fire again, Slade quickly fanned three bullets into Duncan’s center mass. Slowly, Duncan dropped onto his knees with his right hand clutching his bleeding chest, dead before he finally sprawled himself onto the floor with his arms outstretched, holding his smoking peacemaker.
      No sooner had Slade holstered his .45, when he swiftly ran to Josh Evans’ side, yelling as he ran to no one in particular to fetch the doctor and the sheriff.
      Reaching Evans’ inert figure, Slade dropped to his knees and holding up Evans’ bloody face, he sighed and shaking his head said, “Damn it, I’m so sorry, Josh. You’ll be alright, the doctor be here soon enough.”
      Josh Evans slowly opened his eyes, staring up at Slade, “John, I. . . I don’t feel my legs,” as blood flowed from between his lips.
      “It’s alright, just don’t try to move.”
      Then, in an almost inaudible pain filled voice Josh Evans managed to say, “Tell . . . tell Lynn . . . I” as pain shot through him, his body spasmed, he felt numb, then slowly Josh felt everything around him spun lazily out of control as his head rolled to one side closing his eyes, and with a last breath, he lapsed into the eternal sleep of death.
      “Josh? Oh, sweet Lord! Josh!”
      After a moment of silence, John Slade closed his eyes, raised his face, and shaking his head shouted, “No . . . no . . . no!”

* * * *

At that very moment, as she slowly made her way from the small corral leading two horses, and while dressed in one of her husband’s white shirts, tan vest a set of old faded chaps over a pair of Josh’s denims, with a six-gun strapped on her waist, Lynn Evans headed to the barn.
      She’d earlier finished cleaning the bunkhouse. Her ranch, which included a water tower, ranch house, corral and barn, was nestled by tall trees on one side and a small cozy nearby stream with a fence line that encircled the entire property.
      It was a hot windy day as she was about to enter the barn, when suddenly, she felt her throat tighten, her mouth dry, and the sense of being shot through the heart. And as she dropped to her knees, she clutched at her chest. In that brief moment, she instinctively felt scared, perhaps in knowing something was terribly wrong with Josh.
      Pablo Aguilar, the Mexican hired hand, who was her only ranch hand, and trusted friend, came from around the corner of the barn saw Lynn Evans on her knees, and quickly was at her side.
      “Señora, que le pasa. . .?
      “Nothing Pablo,” Lynn quickly replied cutting him off, adding. “Estoy bien. I’m fine.”
      Then, with tear filled eyes, she struggled to her feet, as she prayed Josh would come back to her soon.

 

 

PART TWO
GUNS SMOKE

 

 

CHAPTER
9

 

Outside the saloon, a small crowd had gathered as mutterings of a gunfight were bantered back and forth. Some said John Slade – a legendary and highly controversial Texas Ranger – just killed a man; and others that two or three had been killed by the ranger.    Someone said Slade rode with Leander McNelly’s Texas Ranger’s years ago, and he’d killed many Mexican bandits, then riding into Mexico, taking the law into their own hands.
      As two men stood talking about the shooting, one of them, an old man in his sixties, said to the man next to him, “Christ, he comes into our town and now someone is dead. Anyone know who was killed?”
      But there was no reply.
      Just then a stranger, the same one who Slade noticed riding into town earlier, slowly navigated through the crowd, as the local sheriff and two deputies ran into the saloon.
      That stranger, James Echols, a tall-grim faced hombre, stopped just to the side of two men and asked, “What happened here?”
      At this, one of the men’s eyebrows went up, and turning to face Echols said, “Texas Ranger John Slade just killed a couple men.”
      “Whoa, hold on,” Echols said, thinking he may not have heard it right, grabbed the man’s arm, and turned him around facing him.    “Did you say John Slade, the Texas Ranger?”
      “Right enough, the legend himself,” the man said pulling away from the strangers grip.
      This can’t be, Echols thought. He knew his boss had killed John Slade and his wife over in Blanco a few months back. So, someone was mistaken. But if true, then he needed to bring this news back to his boss. First though, he needed to make sure for himself.
      James Echols disengaged himself from the crowd, walked toward the window with the shattered glass front and looked into the saloon. Then he saw his friend Billy Ray Duncan lying in a large pool of blood dead on the floor. He quickly glanced over to the bar, just as Slade stared almost straight at him.
      Yes; that was Texas Ranger John Slade alright! James Echols thought. He let a few seconds fly by and then said, “Boss ain’t going like this,” in almost a whisper.
      Slowly backing away from the window, Echols made his way back to the stables and his horse. Just as he walked by the sheriff’s office, he happened to glance at the poster broad display of several wanted posters, and it was then he noticed the reward for the Hatcher brothers.
      Well I’ll be damned, his boss ain’t gonna like this either, he thought. Then he pulled down the wanted poster and tucked it into his shirt.

 

As soon as the doctor knelt down beside him and Josh Evans’ body, John Slade stood up and walked with slow stiff steps toward the bar.
      “Give me a bottle!” John Slade yelled out to the barkeep.
      No sooner Slade leaned on the bar when the doctor pronounced Josh Evans dead. It was at that precise moment that Sheriff Brad Chatwood and two of his deputies rushed into the saloon, guns drawn.
      Sheriff Chatwood quickly glanced around the saloon and sauntered over toward John Slade, holstering his peacemaker.
      “How did this happened, John?” Chatwood asked.
      Gulping down his whiskey, Slade turned toward the sheriff. “I called out Duncan, but he drew and shot my friend there. Then I put three into Duncan’s Chest.”
      “So, ah, Duncan drew first?” Chatwood asked.
      “That’s what I just said, sheriff.”
      “Just doing my job, John, “Chatwood said. “Way I see it, it’s purely self-defense. I’ll talk to the rest of the witnesses here, get their take.”
      After a brief silence, Sheriff Chatwood asked, “How are you feeling, John?”
      John Slade felt a surge of rage inside his chest. “Feeling?” . . . John said. “This – this thing inside me . . . Wish I couldn’t feel a damn thing anymore.”
      Sheriff Chatwood didn’t respond, but slowly walked over toward his deputies and the witnesses.
      Then, from across the saloon, Sheriff Chatwood turned to face Slade and said, “John, I need you to stay in town until I get this matter cleared up.”
      Slade poured himself another shot of whiskey, and draining the glass, slowly turned and glanced keenly at the sheriff.
      In a grim low voice Slade replied, “Not going anywhere. Not till I get my friend ready for transport back to his wife.”

* * * *

It was nearly noon the very next day that James Echols rode into the outskirts of the gang’s hideout. He knew the outpost sentries were just over the next rise.
      So, he reduced his bay to a slow gait. Then fifteen minutes later, he began to draw-up a little more, letting himself be seen and recognized – not wanting to get shot in the process.
      He didn’t make the sentries, but knew they were there, as he rode past their outpost. Shortly thereafter, he made out the shack and bunk house in the distance. It wasn’t much to look at. The place was small, and it showed a great deal of laziness on the part of the men living there.
      There were several men walking about doing their assigned tasked, as Jerry Hatcher walked out of the shack to meet the lone rider who was slowly making his way to the shack. It was certainly an unexpected surprise to see Echols, who was supposed to be in San Antonio about this time, and not here. The man must have a very good reason for it, he thought for not following orders.
      It was then that Echols noticed Jerry Hatcher standing on the porch leaning against one of the two lintel’s supporting the roof. Echols put his bay into a slow gallop, and dismounted on the fly in front of the shack, as dust swirled around him. Tying his horse on the hitching post, he walked toward Hatcher, who was watching Echols approach.
      First thing first, John Slade, then the wanted poster, Echols thought.
      “What the hell are you doing here?” Jerry Hatcher asked. “You’re supposed to be in San Antonio.”
      “Yes, sir, but . . . I . . .”
      “But nothing,” Hatcher said, cutting him off. “You know what happened to the last man didn’t follow orders.”
      “Yeah, yeah I do, but . . .”
      “Damn it man. Spit it out.”
      “It’s about John Slade, the ex-Ranger. . .”
      “He’s dead,” Hatcher said cutting him off once again, “So, what about him?”
      “He’s alive.”
      Jerry Hatcher frowned, confused for a second. “What did you say?”
      James Echols shrugged his wide shoulders, and staring at Hatcher said, “John Slade is alive.”
      Jerry Hatcher’s expression dropped. “Are you sure of this?”
      James Echols reached into his shirt and dug out the wanted poster on the Hatchers which he extended out toward Jerry Hatcher.
      “Yes sir, I am,” Echols said. “And there’s more. Like a reward being offered for you and your brother for murder.”
      Jerry Hatcher nervously frowned, taking the wanted poster and reading it through. He said, “Let’s go inside.”
      James Echols followed Jerry Hatcher into the run-down shack, as Echols stepped on through, then waited by the door.
      Inside the shack, Willis Hatcher quickly looked up from finishing his late breakfast of fried eggs and bacon, then his glance moved back to his breakfast, and wiping his plate with a piece of bread stuffed his mouth with it, as Jerry Hatcher placed a wanted poster on the table in front of his brother.
      An unexpected hush fell in the shack. Willis Hatcher then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and picked up the poster reading it through.
      Willis Hatcher wasn’t one bit annoyed by the poster. In fact, he half expected it. And now he was sure he should’ve killed that Mexican farmer – he may still do so – if they were brought up on charges, or a trial.
      Oh yeah, he could still do that.
      Willis Hatcher nodded under his dark curly hair and simply said, “So?”
      Jerry Hatcher looked at his brother then at James Echols, and seeing no outward anger or surprise from his brother, groaned in despair. “It’s a wanted poster for us, big brother. My God, how can you just sit there and not be angry?”
      “I expected this sooner or later.”
      “You knew this would happen?”
      “Yes.”
      “Damn, brother! And you didn’t tell me. Why?”
W      illis wasn’t the least annoyed by Jerry Hatcher’s out-burst. He stared at him with mostly tolerant understanding. “You got to trust me Jerry; you would’ve gotten yourself all worked up over nothing.”
      “Okay, let’s see if this gets to you,” he said turning to stare at Echols. “Tell him exactly what you found out in the town of Oak Hill, James.”
      James Echols swallowed hard.
      Echols, had never once spoken directly to the boss. And now with this information, he was scared out of his wits in what Willis would do to him once he’d told him his story.
Swallowing hard once again he said, “Found out in Oak Hill . . . that John Slade is still alive.”
      “You lying sack of shit!” Willis shouted jumping to his feet and drawing his gun, cocking back the hammer in one smooth motion, ready to put a couple into Echols’ chest.
      “Don’t shoot him! There’s more to the story,” Jerry Hatcher shouted.
      “Hell no, Slade is dead. I put five slugs into him, and you Jerry, emptied your gun too. No way he’s still alive, no way!”
      Then masking his anger and surprise, Willis Hatcher quietly, and with slow even glances stared at his brother then over at Echols.
      Echols quickly saw Willis Hatcher’s glances finally came to a stop on him as Willis Hatcher’s stare bored right through him.
      Willis Hatcher holstered his gun, and slowly walked around the table, coming toward Echols. Once he was about a foot away from him, he stopped and again just stared straight into the eyes of his hired man.
Jerry Hatcher was watching his brother, wondering what his brother would say or do to Echols. Echols for his part dropped his eyes away from Willis and looked straight at Jerry, maybe looking for some help. Fear and dread of what could suddenly happen in the next few seconds showed on Echols face.
      “Alive you say,” Willis Hatcher said. “Did you actually get to see the Ranger?”
      In a slow controlled voice without looking into Willis Hatcher’s eyes Echols said, “Yes sir. I know him anywhere. He once tried arresting me years ago.”
      “I see,” Willis said. “Why didn’t you kill him when you had the chance?”
      “There was no chance, boss. The sheriff and his deputies were already in the saloon when I got there. If I’d tried, I wouldn’t have gotten out alive.”
      Pause.
      “Also, Boss,” Echols said. “Billy Ray was killed by Slade in the saloon.”
      “Get out!” Willis yelled. And in a lower tone of voice said, “Go take care of your horse and get something to eat.”
      James Echols stared at Willis then at Jerry, feeling relieved at the peaceful outcome. “Thank you, boss,” he quietly said.
      Willis Hatcher watched James Echols walk out of the shack, and then leaning on the door frame turned his head toward his brother Jerry.
      “We need to take care of Slade.”
      “What ya got in mind?”
      “Get two or three men together and work your way into the town Slade’s in, and finish him once and for all. Make sure you take Echols with you.”
      “I’ll leave right away.”

CHAPTER
10

 

The small town of Oak Hill ran north and south and was several blocks long. The sheriff’s office was located at the ass-end of it on the north side. There were several normal shops, including the livery stable’s and the black smith’s corner, a two-story hotel which included a large dining-room, and two saloon’s, one with a brothel on its second floor – the Lineman’s saloon. Next to the telegraph office was a pawn shop and Nestor’s club and cafe. It also boasted a Wells Fargo stage line and a train depot situated toward the south end of town.
      The sheriff’s office placed itself alongside Nestor’s small cafe and breakfast tavern, which had one of the town’s two bath houses as well. On the other side of the sheriff’s office was the dry goods store.
      As John Slade stepped out of the sheriff’s office, on his second day in town, he stopped to watch the sun descending below the horizon, dimming its light of day as it slowly faded, as if the colors and intensity of the light were saying its good-bye’s. But he knew he’d see it soon again. It held a calming effect on him, almost healing his despair and aching heart.
      Tipping his hat toward the sun, Slade smiled, and then started walking in a leisurely pace toward his hotel room. He’d already concluded his arrangements for Josh Evans’ remains to be shipped back to Blanco on the next train, with himself riding escort. He’d held off on notifying Lynn, Josh’s wife about his death, wanting to personally tell her instead of having an impersonal telegram do his talking for him. He figured it was the best course of action, and the least he could do.
      His plans at Austin will have to take a back-seat now that he needed to travel back to Blanco with Josh’s casket.
      And after talking with Sheriff Brad Chatwood, John had been cleared of any charges against him, not that any were brought up, for the shooting of Billy Ray Duncan, which the local judge ruled as self-defense. Also, sheriff Chatwood mentioned that he’d receive a telegram in answer to his inquiries about the Hatcher’s, from the sheriff in Round Rock. The Round Rock sheriff mentioned that the Hatcher brothers and their gang were possibly hiding out somewhere in the hills above the town of Bastrop.
      So, thought Slade, they’re keeping themselves close by, not leaving the state. It makes my job of hunting them down so much easier.
      Slade picked up his pace some, wanting to get to his hotel, wash up some and have a nice quiet dinner. Crossing the dust blown street, he arrived at the door of the hotel and saw several people milling about waiting for dinner to be served. He was famished, but he needed to wash the dust off first. Making it to the stairs he took them two a time, and entered his room.

 

And at the same time as John Slade entered his room, out in the desert, a group of four hard-riding horseman, part of Hatcher’s gang, rode onto a cliff overlooking the small town of Oak Hill out in the distance. One of the riders, Jerry Hatcher, pulled out his watch and said, “We made good time men.”
      Then in the dying sunset, they spurred their horses and galloped down toward the town. Jerry Hatcher already had a semblance of a plan worked out. And with the darkness approaching, he knew it would play right into his hands. With any luck, they should have it all done before anyone knew what had happened.

 

After a dinner of steak and potatoes with plenty of coffee to wash it all down, John Slade made his way out of the hotel and stood at its entrance as a cool breeze lazily blew from the west, smoothing and cooling his warm face. Removing his hat, he used his bandana to wipe at some of the sweat from his hair.
      Then he slumped into a chair kept beside the hotel’s doorway, leaned back and pulled out a cigar. Once he had it lit, he took a long drag and blew it out, as his thoughts revolved around the turn of events of the past few hours – the killing of his friend Josh Evans. And with the death of his wife, Emily, his guilt and bitter recrimination has grown. What if . . . If only.
      These where thoughts that occupied his mind, but the thought deep down within his soul was – I could’ve prevented it. . . How did I fail? He let that chain of thought dissolve into nothing, not letting them consume his every thought, or he’d go crazy. But one thought that kept nagging at him was; what to tell Lynn, and now to say it.
      Slade shrugged, and flipping the rest of his cigar out onto the street, slowly rose.
Eventually, John Slade noticed the streets were packed with somber people walking and talking, and riders on both side of the street riding in and out of town. Oak Hill was coming alive in a bevy of activity, now that the sun had set and the coolness of the night prevailed.
      Turning his back on the town, Slade reentered the hotel, and walking up the stairs, made his way up to his room.
Once in his room, and having locked the door, he removed his hat, gun-belt and boots. He then removed one of his .45s and placed it within easy reach on the bed. Lying down, he gradually fell into a restless sleep.

 

They rode in from the south, at full gallop. Then, a quarter mile from the outskirts of town, they slowed on their approach to the livery stables at the far end of town, keeping themselves away from prying eyes. Jerry Hatcher and James Echols rode shoulder to shoulder, while the other two men stayed in the back also shoulder to shoulder.
      The night had grown slightly cooler, and riding past the livery stables, they veered their horses over to a water trough. And with no one around to watch their approach, they all dismounted and tied their horses to a hitching post. The horses swiftly started guzzling. Then, all four men slowly walked around to the front coming to a stop in front of Jerry Hatcher.
      It was just after ten o’clock, as both sides of the town and the streets were busy – buckboards moving up and down the main street, men on horseback rode to and fro – while groups of men and women strolled along the boardwalks.
      Feeling a slight but sudden exultation, Jerry Hatcher had a plan in mind which involved James Echols. Hatcher needed Echols to get things rolling for him. This was the first part of his plan.
Standing close to Echols, Hatcher said, “James, get into the town proper and find out if Slade is still here, and what hotel he’s staying in. Then get back here.”
      Echols frowned more or less in confusion, “Hell Jerry, why me?”
      “You know what he looks like, and because I’m telling you to do it.”
      Echols shrugged. This didn’t sit well with him, but he didn’t say so to Hatcher. Then shaking his head, he turned his back on them, and slowly walked onto the middle of the street.
      “The rest of you stay back,” Jerry Hatcher said. “Now we wait.”

 

James Echols slowly made his way up the middle of the street, which were now well illuminated by gaslights up and down both sides of the wide street, when he came to a stop in front of the first hotel he came up to – the Stonewall Hotel and Saloon. Walking up to the two sets of steps, he stepped onto the boardwalk and through the hotel’s open doors.
      As he strolled through the hotel’s lobby, he stopped in front of a set of ‘cafe-doors,’ and looked into the saloon. Then pushing though the swinging doors, he entered the saloon proper. To his right, he saw several cowboys standing behind two Faro card games, and a stud poker game on one of the other tables littered with coins and several bills, and to his left six or seven men were standing at the bar enjoying their beers and whiskeys. The Faro and poker games where in full swing as he made his way to the game tables. After waiting about twenty minutes, James Echols finally sat down at one of the Faro tables.
      A half hour later as he placed his bets, and nursing a beer, he waited and hoped he’d soon have the whereabouts of the Texas Ranger. But so far, the conversation only revolved around the game. So, he decided to open it up, without arousing too much suspicion, or so he hoped.
      He’d already lost twenty dollars, as he folded his cards unable to get a good hand to begin with. Then taking a drink of his beer, he placed the mug on the table, smiled and to no one in particular said, “Heard about the ruckus y’all been having here. Anyone know what happened?”
      One, a grizzled old-timer with a sweat stains around his hat, long gray dirty hair and drooping thick mustache, raised his head to the stranger, and as he pulled in his winnings said, “Two men died in a gunfight over in the Lineman’s saloon. They say Texas Ranger John Slade, shot one dead, but not before Slade’s friend got gunned down.”
      “John Slade, you say,” James Echols said.
      The old timer merely nodded, as the rest of the men around the table fell silent, evidently, letting the old timer speak for them.
      Then a freckled face young cowboy, on Echols’ left side, drew back his dirty sweat stained hat, and disgusted with his lack of luck, dropped his cards on the table and said, “Sure enough. Way I hear it Slade’s gunning for those that killed his wife and left him for dead.”
      Looking around the table, James Echols said, “Anyone knows where I can find this John Slade.”
      A dark suspicion crept across the face of the old timer.
      “Why y’all asking?” he said.
      “Just curious is all.”
      “We all playing cards or jabbing,” someone else said.
      The question was met with a feeble attempt at a smile, as James Echols not meeting anyone’s eyes, reached for his cards. He was unwilling to press the issue right away. But soon he would have to.

 

An hour had passed, when John Slade woke with a start.
      He sat up and immediately grabbed his gun, cocked back the hammer, looked around the darkened room, and was greeted with silence. Then, completely awake he’d realized where he was.
      Unsure as to what had awoken him he slowly lay back on his pillow, and laced his hands behind his head.
      Slade knew what woke him. It was his dreams and deep seated grief for the death of his wife. Vividly, throughout his reoccurring nightmares, as if in slow motion and in haze, he saw the murder of his wife; saw her try to sit-up after his warning and saw the bullet entering her forehead.
      He also knew that his nightmares were consuming his very soul, almost to a state of depression from which if he led them, he wouldn’t recover. It was only his quest for revenge that kept him going. While at the same time, knowing his guns would speak for him. But now, with the sudden death of Josh Evans, it became imperative that he find those responsible and put an end to their murderous existence.
      After lying in bed for the past ten minutes, and unable to sleep, Slade decided to get himself a beer from the saloon. He’d hoped the beer would help him get to sleep. So, rising out of bed, he put on his boots, strapped on his guns, grabbed his hat and exited his room.

 

At the saloon, and after only winning his third hand, and his frustration on not learning the whereabouts of Slade, James Echols grabbed his winnings, and decided he’d head over to Lineman’s Saloon, see if he had better luck there. Then vacating his seat at the game table, he stood up, pocketed his winnings and stepped to the bar for one last shot of whiskey.

 

At the very moment that James Echols was making his way to the bar, John Slade came down the stairs then onto the hotel’s lobby, as several cowboys strolled in an out of the lobby. Then, he headed to the saloon.
      Stopping at the swinging doors, he quickly glanced around the bar. He noticed the place was packed for this late night, with several hombres at the bar and two Faro games and a poker game situated at the far end of the saloon, as five or seven men waited their turns behind the tables.
      Loud laughter and talk was everywhere, with three working ladies making their rounds hoping to score. There wasn’t anyone or group that stood out in the crowd that Slade would consider any type of threat.
So, pushing his hat just above his forehead and feeling slightly safe, he entered the saloon, as his spurs quietly jingled behind him. And as he walked in, he did one thing out of habit – he undid the hammer thongs to his two .45s and cocked the hammer on his cross draw side arm. Hopefully, the edge would be his, if called out. The saloon was lighted by a hanging chandelier which cast an eerie yellow glow, trailing his shadow behind him as he strolled in.
      Reaching the bar, he stood slightly turned to his left and placed his order with the bartender – a heavyset and sweating man – with a blue bandanna around his neck, black haired with pudgy deep set little eyes. Slade, as was his custom, kept his right hand very near his side holstered .45, just in case.
      James Echols, standing to the far left of the bar, and out of the corner of his eye, noticed someone approaching the bar. He didn’t turn to see who it was, but glanced at the wall mirrors behind the bar, as cracking a slow smile, immediately recognized the stranger – John Slade.
      Echols, imagined himself calling out Slade right then and there. Maybe he wasn’t as fast as they say Slade was, but he had a distinct advantage. He figured with so many at the bar, all he had to do was take a step back, draw and plug three into Slade before anyone knew what was happening. He also knew enough to know Slade wasn’t an east man to kill. But, then the last thing he remembered was     Jerry Hatcher telling him exactly what he needed to do – find Slade and report back.
      So, with a shrug and a shake of his head, Echols downed his drink, stood back from the bar and slowly made his way past Slade without a glance his way, and out of the saloon.
      Still not knowing which room Slade was in or what hotel, as walking forward, he stopped at the hotel’s front desk, as an idea swiftly came to him. Seeing the hotel register sitting open, he looked around and not seeing anyone in the lobby, turned the book around and saw Slade as being registered in the hotel, and made a mental note as to room he was registered in. Then turning the book back around, he made his way out of the hotel, satisfied that what he came to do, was done with.
      All that’s left now is the killing, he thought, grinning ear to ear.

 

CHAPTER
11

 

Before meeting up with Jerry Hatcher, James Echols decided to check-out the layout of the hotel, something Jerry Hatcher would be keen to know, he told himself.
      As he stepped away from the hotel’s entrance, he made his way toward the left side corner of the hotel. Then coming to the edge of the building he saw a set of stairs leading up to a second story veranda that connected to its rooms. Slowly walking down the alleyway, he made out another alleyway directly behind the hotel between the buildings.
      It was a good way to come though unnoticed by anyone out in the street, he thought.
Satisfied with his observations, he hurried his pace. But, coming back onto the boardwalk, he saw two deputies approaching him – or so it seemed to him – on the same side of the street.
      The deputies had just finished making their rounds throughout town, and now that they were finished, they were hurrying back to their wives and children. With no signs of trouble this night, or drunks to contend with, and not having anyone locked up at the jail, they were going off duty early.
      James Echols released the hammer thong to his peacemaker, keeping his gun hand very close to the holster, as he nonchalantly kept walking not wanting to make eye contact with the lawmen.
      The town of Oak Hill was small, and any new visitor was immediately noticed. So thinking, Echols kept his slow approach, hoping he wouldn’t be stopped and questioned by the deputies.
      As the lawmen came within ten feet of Echols, they didn’t stop, but continued on past with only a quick casual glance directed his way. With a sigh of relief, on not being recognized and arrested, or worse having to fight his way out of their clutches, Echols made his way to the livery stable.

 

Back in the saloon, John Slade, with beer mug in hand, turned around and leaned back against the bar’s railing. Taking a long gulp of his beer, he glanced here and there, as he watched the saloon patrons slowly thin to just ten or so men. And from across the room, one of those patrons, an old man with a sweat stained hat, long flowing gray hair, drooping mustache and wearing old faded buckskins, stood up from one of the Faro game tables, pocket his money, and stared long and hard at Slade.
      Then the old man began to make his way toward John Slade. And as Slade watched his approach, he noticed the old geezer walking with a noticeable limp and slight hunchback. Slade figured him to be a mountain man or a trapper.
      The stories the old geezer could tell, he thought.
Nevertheless, Slade’s right hand crept over to his .45, not taking any chances with the old man, although he didn’t see a gun visible on him.
      The old man stopped just about two feet away from Slade and flashed him a smile.
      “You be John Slade?” more a statement than a question.
      “Who’s doing the asking?”
      “Just being neighborly son. My name be Duffy, Jim Duffy,” he said extending out his right hand.
      Reaching out to shake Duffy’s hand, Slade asked, “We met before?”
      “Ah, no, never had the pleasure. Just thought you’d like to know someone been asking about you earlier.”
      “I see. Did that someone leave a name?”
      “No. But he seemed an unsavory character. He didn’t appear to be from around here. Looked more a gunslinger and I met quite a few.”
      “Thank you, appreciate it.”
      “Well, you may have seen him at the bar yonder,” he said pointing to the left side of the bar.
      “Don’t reckon I did.”
      “Just . . . thought you should know it’s all.”
      “Thank you again.”
      Slade frowned on receiving the information, perceiving some sort of danger may be in store soon. Under the circumstances, the danger would be quite obvious, considering the last two hombres he’d made contact with so far in town. Thinking over what Jim Duffy said, he finished his beer, turned and walked out of the saloon, returning to his room.
      Either he’d get a good night’s sleep or maybe he’d be receiving some visitors tonight. So, Slade figured if anything was to happen tonight, it would likely come sometime after midnight. He’d be prepared for both.
      Slade smiled. So, for the time being at least they were coming to me, instead of the other way around, he thought.

 

James Echols finally made it to the area in which he’d left his boss earlier, but didn’t see anyone around. Wondering where they could be, he kept shifting around, glancing here and there. Then from inside the stables, he heard his name being called.
      Picking up his pace, Echols made it inside the stables. He saw all three men in a corner that was lit by a gas-lamp hanging from a hail on a support beam. He walked over to them and saw Jerry Hatcher pacing furiously as he approached him. Hatcher stopped his pacing as Echols came to a halt in front of the other men.
      “It’s about time,” Hatcher said. “Did you learn anything?”
      “Sorry, boss,” Echols replied. “Those towns-folk kept it close to the vest. But I did see Slade. He’s staying at the Stonewall Hotel room eight. There is an alleyway behind the hotel and a side stairs which leads up to a veranda, thought you should know.”
      “Damn good work, James,” Hatcher said.
      James Echols only nodded.
      With this information, Jerry Hatcher laid out his plan. Every man had a job to do, and if they all stuck to it, he was assured the death of the Ranger would be swift, and they’d be out of town before anyone could stop their getaway. Plus, he had the element of surprise in his favor.
      Hatcher said, “Will wait till one, when the town’s asleep.”

 

The town of Oak Hill was serenely quiet and dark. Most of the gas-lit lamps around the town had blow out. The windows in the shops were darkened. The town seemed deserted, lonely, except, for the barking of a dog as it tried to chase down an unwary cat across the street, which had unwittingly crossed the dog’s path.
      It was an hour later, when Jerry Hatcher pulled aside the flap to his tan colored duster, reached inside his vest, and pulled out his pocket watch. Just then, as he opened it, the second hand struck the hour of one a.m. Then closing and returning it to his vest, he faced his crew and smiled.
      He said. “It’s time. Y’all know what you need to do, so let’s get on with it.”
      All three men nodded, pulled their guns and checked the loads; they also made sure their belts had sufficient ammunition available if needed. But, only one had a Winchester. He was one of two designated as the covering men once the shooting started. According to Hatcher’s plan, another man was to provide cover for the remaining two men who would make it to the hotel room.
      “Is everyone ready?” Hatcher asked.
      Getting nods from his men, they slowly and in single file left by way of the stables back door then unto the darkened alleyways.

 

CHAPTER
12

 

The four outlaws crept forward along the back alleyways, to finally stand on the far edge corner of the hotel. Then the last hombre in line, Max Johnson, a short skinny man, with an old grey battered civil war hat, long red kerchief and wearing chaps over denims, and while holding his Winchester down by his side, quickly cut himself from the pack. Then making his way across the street from the hotel, he positioned himself on the far edge of a building, blending himself into the darkness. Then bringing his Winchester up in front of him, he pulled back the hammer on a live round – cocked and ready, as he held his vigil.
      There were two ways into the hotel, one through the hotel’s lobby staircase, and the other from the outside staircase along-side the hotel’s alleyway which ran parallel to the main street. The staircase led up onto a veranda on the front of the hotel, which had their own separate windows and doors into the rooms. There were eight rooms total.
      The three remaining outlaws separated.
James Echols slowly made his way to the alleyway staircase, as Jerry Hatcher walked around toward the front of the hotel. The third man, Chris Young, of medium height, wearing an old felt hat, a dark Mexican poncho and Levi’s, stayed put in the alleyway to render fire cover, if needed. Then pulling his peacemaker, he cocked back the hammer and finding a spot behind some crates, he knelt taking cover behind them, hoping he’d wasn’t likely to be seen.
      As he watched Hatcher disappear around the side of the hotel, James Echols stepped cautiously onto the stairs, climbing slowly to the top to the veranda. Once there he stopped, drew and cocked back the hammer on his peacemaker in one fluid motion. He stood there for a few seconds, listening for anything out of the ordinary. But, all was quite. When he was satisfied no one was awake, he continued walking forward looking for room eight, as his boots struck the wooden floor and his spurs jingled behind him.
      Just as James Echols made the top landing, Jerry Hatcher entered the hotel lobby. Without seeing anyone in the lobby or the desk clerk come out to see who had come in, he made his way as quickly as he could, without running, to the stairs. Taking the stairs two at a time, he made the top landing, drew his gun and slowly started walking down the hallway, looking for room eight. As his boots struck the hard wooden floor, too damn loud for his liking, he slowed his forward movement just enough so that his boots wouldn’t give him away, just in case the Ranger was a light sleeper. His plan completely hinged on the element of surprise. Hatcher’s plan was simple, once he fired the first shot all hell would break loose.
      And all hell did break loose that night!
      Outside, the dark night became darker as storm clouds formed a warning of impending rain in the air, as another deadly storm was now brewing inside the hotel.
      James Echols finally came to the last door at the other end of the veranda, and just made out the red painted number eight on the door. Then kneeling down on the far side of the room’s window, he waited.
At the precise moment Echols stationed himself by the window, Hatcher stopped in front of the door marked with the number eight. He placed an ear to the door, and slowly turned the door knob. But it was locked!
      From beyond the hills to the east, a strong wind swept through the town, bringing in loud thunderheads, and lighting strikes, lighting up the country side, and with it a drenching cold rain.
      And, just as the thunder shook the ground, Jerry Hatcher shattered open Slade’s door. Seeing the bed by the window, he started firing round after round at the bulk lying on the bed.
      At that very moment, a window pane was struck and broken, as James Echols also fired off several shots into the bed.
      All that could be seen in that darkened room was the muzzle flashes of two guns firing almost in concert.
      As death and destruction came on the scene, the devil smiled!

END

Copyright: 2017 by Victor M. Alvarez – No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the authors’ rights.