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Ralph Compton Broken Rider (The Gunfighter Series) Kindle Edition
Riding into the town of Smoky River on a mangy mule, Dane looks as broken down as his old mount. His Stetson is ragged, his boots are tied together with leather thongs, and he wears a Colt Army revolver with exactly three bullets. He wouldn't know what to say if you asked him where he got the gun, or how he learned to shoot it so well. He doesn't know if Dane is his first name or his last. Something happened that cost him much of his memory, and he can't remember what that something was. For three years he's been traveling the West as a cowboy, a buffalo hunter, a farmhand. Smoky River looks to be a fine place to settle down. If only his past didn't decide to catch up to him here. . .
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
1876. The Smoky Hills. Kansas.
When he first rode up, Dane did not know the town's name. He'd seen no city-limits sign. But after all the dusty trailing he'd done from Abilene, the greenness of the place appealed to him. In the October dusk the place looked pleasantly sleepy and well shaded. Its few streets were laid out to either side of a tree-lined river. This time of year, the river was awash with silt from the thunderstorms in the hills, so it seemed the color of saddle leather. The rolling hills to the west of the town were yet green for rich grazing. Most of the birches and cottonwoods hugging the river still had a passel of green leaves, though the oaks were going golden red. A soft breeze ruffled the treetops, a sight Dane found soothing. There was little enough comfort in the world, and this place might offer him a spoonful or two before it urged him on.
The town didn't seem large; nor was it too small. Large towns made him nervous. Small towns made him feel overly conspicuous. He couldn't remember why he felt that way any more than he could remember what his full name was, or how old he was-or even where he had been born.
He was almost a stranger to himself. Dane was the only name he could recall, though it seemed to him he'd had more than one, sometime in the curtained-off past. He thought he might be from Missouri, because folks sometimes remarked that he had an Eastern Missouri accent.
All that really mattered, most times, was where he'd just been and where he was going. For a while he'd cowboyed for a big spread in Kansas. Lately he'd been working on a small ranch a half day's ride from Abilene, Kansas, just a hired hand fixing fences, digging irrigation, taking care of the small herd, even hoeing the vegetable garden. They'd paid him scantly, but they'd given him two meals a day along with a bunk in a lean-to, and they'd put up his mule, Gravy, even giving her grain. Still, eight months on that dusty, unfriendly High Plains spread had been enough. He was not a talkative man, but working for German folk who knew just enough English to boss him-who made their own beer and never offered him any-had been even lonelier than he was used to. Dane had saved a small poke of silver, and six days ago, he'd climbed on Gravy and ridden out with his few possessions: the clothes on his back, the old Colt Army revolver-Dane couldn't recall how he'd come to have it-exactly three bullets, one lariat, a harmonica, a saddle and saddlebags, a comb made of elk horn, a tin pan for cooking, a tin coffee cup, an iron saucepan he used for boiling coffee, a tinder box, an Army canteen with a bullet hole halfway up it, and a skinning knife. He'd stopped in Abilene for coffee and bacon, hardtack and dried apples, and a handful of matches. He had finally bought a new canteen, too, because the bullet hole-he had no idea how it had come to be there-meant his old canteen could be filled only halfway.
Dane had fifty-five dollars left. He needed new boots, but he was reluctant to part with the price of them. He suspected he might need to buy another mount. Poor old Gravy might give out on him. For a good long time, before he'd bought her for three dollars and seventy-five cents, she'd been used to pull plows and buckboards. Mules were tough, but she had been seventeen years old when he bought her; now she was nearly twenty, and her working life had fair worn her down. She was beginning to be swaybacked and complained more than she used to when he mounted her. Dane was afraid she wasn't long for the world. He would miss her. She was a kindly animal, for a mule, and his only friend, now that Old Keggum had died.
Dane had hoped to stay in Abilene longer-but found himself unsettled when Marshal Freeman had accosted him with questions.
"Seems like I saw you out to Bull Run," Freeman said. "You don't remember me? I was provost marshal."
"No, sir, I don't remember if I was in the war or not," Dane had said. He was careful to be polite to the notorious gunman. "I don't remember much, till startin' three years ago."
"Is that so? What's your name?"
"It's Dane, Marshal."
Dane shrugged. "The one name's the only name I know."
Freeman had scowled, seeming to think Dane was covering up some shadowy past-perhaps as a deserter from the Army-and gave him twelve hours to leave town.
It was often that way. Some lawmen distrusted him, though he avoided trouble. Dane knew he looked rough, knew he seemed a saddle tramp. Hilda Weber, the wife of his boss, had made him shave and cut his hair once every two months so he didn't scare the children. Perhaps he was indeed a mere saddle bum.
Thinking that maybe, somewhere on, he could be something better, he trotted his old mule on into this new town.
The first time Suzanne Marrin saw Dane, she took him at first glance to be a skulky vagabond of the lowest type.
It was getting on toward sunset as she walked from the dress shop, where she'd bought a pattern, to the mercantile, for a bolt of dark blue cloth and a little lace. She'd saved her egg money for the makings of a new dress so that she would no longer be embarrassed when she went to church. Just now she was wearing a much-worn tan walking skirt, one of her mother's hand-me-down white blouses, and a rose-pink sweater her mother had knitted for her. Her old button-up shoes, which had also belonged to her mother, clipped rapidly across Main Street. The town council, in a fit of pride and concern for the tendency of the street to flood, had sprung for brick pavement with drainage. She paused partway to let a costly brass-and-fringe-trimmed surrey clop past, drawn by a fine, neatly groomed quarter horse. It was driven by Jess Willoughby, the dapper owner of the Horseshoe W Ranch. He was a narrow-faced, sandy-haired man with a vinegary expression on his face most times, but now he managed a smile and tipped his homburg at her. She nodded in return, not meeting his eyes. He'd twice asked for Suzanne's hand. But to the frustration of her mother, Suzanne had politely but firmly said no.
"You're thirty-three, Suzanne," her mother had said. "Folks think you a spinster!"
Now Willoughby clucked at the Kentucky mare to quicken the surrey out of Suzanne's way, and she made her way hurriedly to the wooden walkway in front of the mercantile. She heard a distant rumble of thunder; she'd seen clouds gathering on the northern horizon. It wouldn't do to be caught in a downpour.
She had one hand on the glass knob of the mercantile's door when another clop of hooves made her glance over her shoulder-and she stopped, staring.
A stranger was riding in on a gray mule that snorted with weariness. He was a big man, almost too big for his mule. No doubt he was a trail-traipsing drunkard, for he had holes in his old Stetson-the sort that come from taking off a hat by the crease for a couple years-and his boots were down at heel, the sole on one of them peeling off. His blue trousers were scuffed open at the knees, and he wore an open duster over what might have been a ragtag red flannel shirt, the shirt so dusty itself, it was hard to have an opinion as to its original color. He had the kind of beard that comes from ignoring his razor, and brown hair past his grimy collar. And his face . . . his eyes . . .
Suddenly, she found herself unsure of her first estimate of the man.
His gray eyes were intelligent as he glanced her way. They were sensitive eyes, even kindly-but haunted, too. His weathered face creased in a sad smile, and to her surprise, the saddle tramp doffed his hat to her and nodded, his manner marked by a gentlemanliness that belied his appearance.
Realizing she was staring, Suzanne turned away, blushing, and hurried into the mercantile.
The sunset was just starting to make a scarlet outline of the rolling hills, when Dane dismounted at the livery. A sign on the whitewashed building read R. K. Gunderson, Hostler.
Dane patted Gravy, feeling the sweat on her trembling withers, and looked down the street, reading some signs: Smoky River Dry Goods . . . Smoky River Inn . . . First Bank of Smoky River . . .
"Gravy," he said, "could be we're in a place called Smoky River. This is a corner of Kansas I don't know. But clues lead me to the conjecture."
"Mister, you want to put up that mule here?"
Dane turned to see a roosterish red-faced little man in overalls and a leather apron; he had an imposing brown beard stained yellow from tobacco. "You'd be Mr. Gunderson?" Dane asked.
"I would be, and I am," said the hostler. "Roy K. Gunderson."
"My name's Dane."
"You didn't answer my question. You puttin' up the mule or not? I don't want him blocking the door for real trade."
"I would indeed like to put him up, Mr. Gunderson. Let's say for one-no, two nights. And maybe longer."
The hostler quoted his price for a stall, and the cost of hay and grain and a rubdown. "Water's for free if you take the stall."
"I'll take it, sir, but I'll rub Gravy down myself. We're old friends, and she expects it of me."
"Same price!" Gunderson stuck his hand out for the money. He wasn't going to wait on payment from a saddle tramp.
Dane nodded and paid it over. "I take it this is the town of Smoky River?"
"It is that. Named after the Smoky Hill River, which you can see yonder. Town council thought Smoky Hill River too much of a mouthful for namin' a town."
"Is there a saloon that also serves a man fair grub?"
Gunderson hooked a thumb to his right. "'Cross the street and two doors down. Rusty's Saloon. He offers grub that won't lay you out with a bellyache. Most times."
"I thank you, sir. I'll take Gravy inside."
Gunderson stepped aside, and Dane found a stall next to a sleepy-looking mare where he put Gravy in a harness. He fed and watered her and rubbed her down himself, Gunderson watching with a frown.
"That old mule," he said, tamping tobacco into a corncob pipe, "is on its last legs."
"Well, I don't know. Likely she's just tired out."
"Don't tell me I don't know mules! If she falls over dead in here, you'll be responsible for hauling her away. But you know"-a certain craftiness entered into the hostler's voice-"I have a stock horse for sale. Good cow horse. I'll give him to you for thirty dollars. Then you can shoot that mule-somewheres else!-or put it out to pasture. In fact, I've got a pasture you can use. Fifty cents a month."
"You seem pretty eager to sell this horse to the first feller you meet, Mr. Gunderson-I say it respectfully. I'm sure you have your reasons." He smiled. "What are those reasons, may I ask?"
"You speak with peculiar nicety for a drifter," Gunderson said, scowling. He lit his pipe, flicking a match alight with a thumbnail. His thumb was discolored with tobacco, too. "Well. This mustang's powerful choosy about who sits on him." He puffed the pipe alight, blew smoke at the cobwebbed ceiling, and said, "He'll take a fella on, and if he doesn't much like him, he'll carry him a short way, then wait for a chance to shake him off. Usually into the mud. What're you chucklin' for? It ain't funny; that's a good horse going to waste!"
"I would not mind having a look at this cow pony, Mr. Gunderson."
"Right over here."
Gunderson went to a stall on the other side of the stable, took hold of a bridle, and led the horse out. It snorted in a way that, to a man with horse sense, sounded its irritation at being separated from its grain. He was a brown mustang with a black mane and tail, a white blaze. Fairly young and muscular. An unremarkable creature, except that he had a sort of dangerous stillness. Dane felt the horse was assessing him the same moment he was taking stock of it.
"What's his name?"
"Got none that I know of. Just a remuda horse."
"Must be a troublesome one." Dane stepped closer and looked the horse in the eye. "Hey, pard," he whispered. "You want out of here? I can get you a better stake than this ol' stable. My name's Dane. Don't know much else to tell you except I always know when I'm makin' the acquaintance of a good horse." The horse had its ears perked toward him; its dark, lustrous eyes were watching him closely.
Dane remembered a couple of old horehound drops in his duster pocket. He took them out, held them on his palm for the horse. The mustang sniffed at them and then lipped them up and set to busily crunching the candy drops.
"You like that? I get a sweet tooth myself now and then. . . ."
He held the back of his hand in front of the horse's muzzle, let it snuffle at him. The mustang tilted its head, and the taut muscles under its hide seemed to soften. It let him stroke its muzzle.
"Why, by God, I think the damn hammerhead has taken to you!" Gunderson said. "Now you got to buy him!"
"Got to? For thirty dollars? Well, that's more than half what's in my poke, Mr. Gunderson. How's about eighteen? And I'll hire that pasture for my mule."
"Eighteen! Why, you're soaked!"
"I have not taken a drink today. How about nineteen?"
They finally settled on twenty-three. Gunderson seemed relieved to be shed of the mustang.
Dane felt foolish, buying the horse without trying to sit it first, but he had a hunch. "I'm gonna call you Pard," he said, scratching behind the horse's ears. "I think we'll do fine."
Half an hour later, Dane was finishing a couple of pickled eggs and a cut of ham in RustyÕs Saloon. He was standing at the bar to eat and washing down the food with a schooner of beer, when one of the other men at the bar began to bullyrag him.--This text refers to the mass_market edition.
About the Author
John Shirley was born in Houston and now lives in Vancouver, Washington. He is the author of numerous novels and books of short stories, and he won the Bram Stoker Award for his collection Black Butterflies. His novels include the Specialist books (under the name John Cutter), The Brigade, Bleak History, the A Song Called Youth trilogy, and the novel of Wyatt Earp as a young lawman, Wyatt in Wichita. He has also written television shows, movies, and songs. --This text refers to the library edition.
- ASIN : B0818YMTJH
- Publisher : Berkley (August 4, 2020)
- Publication date : August 4, 2020
- Language : English
- File size : 1743 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
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- Print length : 298 pages
- Page numbers source ISBN : 0593102304
- Lending : Not Enabled
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