Apache gunhawk, p.20
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       Apache Gunhawk, p.20

           Monogram Press
 
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Little Bill Noonan kept shifting, uneasily, in the saddle, and looking back. They had been traveling for an hour now and there had been no sign of his father and the others gaining on their trail. The country side was wide open, now. Only dry, dusty landscape spread out before and behind them and they were just slow moving specks in the desolate countryside. Tom Noonan rode in the lead, trailing the pack horses behind him. Julie was riding beside him and Little Bill had kept to the rear.

  Little Bill had been sure that his father had not meant they would actually meet up in Contention. That had just been part of an explanation for splitting up, and just for Julie Hadley’s benefit. They should have been catching up with them by now, the outlaw thought. But, then again, maybe they were just holding back for a while, just to make things look good. Somehow, though, Little Bill Noonan just couldn’t shake the feeling that something had gone wrong.

  They rode on for another half hour, climbing into higher country, that became more rocky. Scrub brush scattered along the banks and dry aspen became more prevalent. Patches of grass became more plentiful. They stopped beside a shallow basin and rested in the shade of a large boulder. The water had trickled into the hollow from a cleft in the rocks. It was clear and cold.

  As they rested, they looked back the way they had come. There was still no sign of the rest of the gang, but then again as the land had given away to more density, they could no longer see very far along the back trail.

  Julie had just handed the canteen to Tom and he had just tilted his head back to take a swallow, when all of a sudden, he froze in place. His gaze went past Julie’s shoulder and saw his brother standing above them. His face was grim. He stood with his feet shoulder width apart and his pistol was out of the holster aimed at the two on the ground.

  Julie, seeing the expression on Tom’s face turned to follow his gaze. The sight of the six gun pointing at them gave her a start.

  “What’s the matter with you?” Tom asked. “Still mad about that beating I gave you?”

  “Seems to me, it was the other way around, kid. I beat you.”

  “That’s not the way, I recollect it,” Tom said, getting to his feet slowly and keeping his eyes on the threatening pistol. “But, on second thought, I guess we never did finish it. Is that what this is all about?” He nodded toward Little Bill’s gun hand. “You want to finish it? All right, put that hogleg away and let’s get to it.”

  Little Bill grinned and sneered. “I’m going to finish this my way.” He thumbed the hammer of his shooter back. It clicked into full cock. “Then I’m going back to see what’s taking Pa so long. I’m tired of this charade, just so your girl doesn’t know what’s going on. If she hasn’t tumbled to the way things are, she’s pretty stupid.”

  “What are you talking about?” Julie snapped, glancing from Little Bill to Tom.

  “You can’t be that stupid,” Little Bill said. “You must know Pa and the others stayed behind to kill the marshal.”

  “Yes,” she hissed. “But, I tried to tell myself it wasn’t true.” Then to Tom, “Why did you let them get away with it? Why didn’t you stop them?” She was feigning indignation, but she really didn’t care. She just wanted to get away from Lee Hadley and she didn’t care what it cost.

  “Because he’s weak,” Little Bill answered. “He never had any backbone. Always weaseling around like mister goody two shoes.” Then to Tom, he snarled, “I’m sick of you, boy. You and you soft bellied ways. Always working on my Pa, turning him against me, and turning him into a wimp.”

  “Seems to me, you’ve had the say, more than me lately,” Tom countered.

  “That’s only because you were making a fool out of yourself over this…this tramp.” He brandished the muzzle of his weapon toward Julie.

  Julie pushed herself to her feet, rage spreading over her face and started to lunge angrily at the outlaw. Tom pulled her back and held her tight against him.

  “That’s right, Tom,” Little Bill taunted. “Hide behind a woman’s skirts. That’s always been your style. But this time, it’s not going to do you any good. You’re both gonna die.” He lifted the weapon higher.

  “How’re you going to explain this to Pa?” Tom was trying to think fast and find a way to dissuade his brother from carrying through his threat.

  “Everyone knows that Indians roam these hills, every so often. I’ll just tell him we were attacked and you two were killed.”

  “And you think, he’ll believe you.”

  “Why not? I’m his son, aren’t I.” He chuckled. “I’ll be his only son now. You never were. You were just some homeless waif he brought home to make me share everything with. Well that’s all gonna change now.” His finger tightened on the trigger, taking up the slack. His knuckle whitened.

  “Before you pull that trigger,” Tom started to plead, his voice rising to a fevered pitch. “There’s something you should know.”

  Little Bill paused a moment, waited for Tom to finish. When he didn’t, he sneered again, “What’s that, kid?”

  Tom said somberly, eyes gazing over the outlaw’s shoulder, “There’s an Apache standing behind you right now.”

  Lee Hadley was tired and thirsty. His horse was sweaty and his coat was covered with heavy lather. He staggered at times, his hoofs sliding in the soft shale and dirt.

  When the attack on the posse occurred, Hadley had managed to maneuver his horse out of harm’s way and hid in the bushes while the fight had ensued. The battle was still raging when he found a deer trail that led him out of the pass, but back the way the posse had come from. He had tried to circle away and try to find a way back north. He had been traveling, for what seemed like forever, with the sun beating down, and still had not been sure he had managed to find the right direction. He remembered the Sheriff saying that they would follow the San Pedro, but so far, he had not found any trace of a river, much less a stream.

  He had already, foolishly, used up the water in his canteen and had not given any to his horse. He had not even let the poor animal rest. As time went on, Hadley became more and more aware that he had been traveling in circles. He had no idea where he was and he was not range astute enough to use the sun as a directional guide.

  He had long since, tossed away his banker’s suit coat and his string tie. His white shirt was sweaty and grimy. His normally pale pallor was turning red from the burning sun’s rays. His throat was dry and his breathing was labored.

  More and more the horse faltered. And every time the tired steed slipped and stumbled, Hadley merely whipped him more with the leather reins and kicking the horse harder in the sides to push him onward. Again and again, he gave the horse wicked punishment, until the beaten horse finally collapsed. Hadley tumbled forward over the horse’s neck and struck the hard pack, rolling over onto his stomach and passing into unconsciousness, without being aware of what had happened. The horse floundered on the ground, snorting and heaving for breath, until it settled down and lie motionless next to his rider. They were two small insignificant objects lying alone on a burning plain beneath the vast empty Arizona sky.

  Little Bill stiffened as he felt hard steel jam against his spine. His face went pale and he loosened his finger on the trigger. “That’s right, little boy,” a deep voiced sounded behind him. “Like you said, these hills are just full of Apaches.” A cavalry blue clad arm reached around him and a dark hand grasped the barrel of his weapon. “Now, just let that hammer down easy as I take this toy out of your hand.”

  Little Bill’s hand went slack and the pistol disappeared from in front of him. “Now you,” Hawk ordered Tom. “Unbuckle your gun belt and drop it.”

  Tom did as instructed, and as soon as the rig hit the dirt, Hawk relieved the pressure of his weapon on Little Bill’s spine and stepped around him to face and cover all three.

  Seeing the big Apache dressed more or less as a white man, in cavalry coat, buckskin britchess and turned up hat, Little Bill said, “Just who the hell are you? You don’t look like any Apache I ever saw.”<
br />
  “Me heap big chief ‘me catchum, me shootum guy’,” Hawk jeered.

  “He’s Apache all right,” Tom Noonan said. “He’s that bounty hunter, they call Hawk.”

  “You remember me, then?” Hawk said.

  “Yes. I remember. And I remember that necklace you’re wearing. But I didn’t remember you the last time I saw you. Your face was covered with war paint. I suppose I owe you for sparing my life.”

  “As I said then, that just made us even. This time we’re enemies.”

  “You expect you can take us all back, all by your lonesome?” Little Bill said. “My Pa and the others will be on our trail soon and you’re gonna find yourself heap big dead.”

  Hawk chuckled. “If you’re counting on them to help you, forget it. I caught them in the middle of trying to hang Marshal Coburn.”

  Little Bill’s face paled into a mask of concern, defeat and anger. “You…you killed them?” He managed to force the words out.

  “No,” the bounty hunter said with a tinge of regret in his voice. “The marshal’s taking them back to Dry Wells as prisoners.”

  Little Bill’s face brightened with renewed hope. “Looks to me like the old marshal is just as foolish and conceited as you, cheify.”

  “How’s that?”

  “Thinking one man can take us all back on his own.”

  “All depends on how easy or hard you want to make it, friend,” Hawk shrugged. “If you make it too hard, I can make it all real easy with a bullet for each of you. The reward gets paid, dead or alive. I prefer dead myself. But, I guess I’ll leave that up to you.”

  “One thing you should know,” Tom said. “The girl is our hostage. She’s not with us.”

  “I know all about Mrs. Hadley,” Hawk said. “Her husband is offering a bigger reward for her than what’s already on your heads.”

  Julie gasped with a start. She felt Tom’s reassuring arm tighten about her shoulders. She should have known that Lee Hadley would never let her get away.

  “But you won’t hurt, Julie?” Tom asked reluctantly, fishing for the answer he didn’t want to hear.

  “As I said,” Hawk repeated. “All rewards get paid dead or alive.”

  Julie felt faint and her knees turned to rubber. Tom held her tighter.

  Brace Coburn called his captives to a halt. They sat atop their weary mounts and gazed up at the waning afternoon sky. The sun had lowered toward the far horizon, but the heat had not yet begun to subside. The pale sky was empty without the hint of cloud anywhere but was punctuated by ominous dark shapes of buzzards circling above, off to the south.

  Although, he was still sweating under the oppressive heat, the marshal still felt a chill creep up and down his spine. His slitted eyes squinted even more narrow, and he sighed with deep regret as he watched the preying oracles of death, periodically, swoop downward and sail skyward once again and readying themselves for another attack.

  “They frighten you, Coburn?” Bill Noonan asked with a taunt.

  The marshal grimaced and grunted. “Death always frightens me, Noonan. Even yours.” Without waiting for a retort, the big lawman gigged the black forward.

  Lee Hadley was still alive, when Brace Coburn found him lying unconscious in the hot sun next to his dead horse. The vultures were already feasting on the animal’s carcass and Coburn had shot two of them, driving the others away momentarily, while he attended to the banker.

  He had tied his horse to a young poplar tree with his rope, anchoring the outlaws’ horses in place and had dragged Hadley’s limp form underneath the shade of its branches. He soaked his bandanna with water from his canteen and sponged the man’s face until he finally brought him around enough to take a swallow of water.

  “Looks like bad luck for you, Marshal,” Bill Noonan jeered. “Now you’ve got another problem on your hands. How’re you going to take care of him and watch us too?” He chuckled.

  “Don’t you worry none about me, Noonan,” Coburn growled. “Just worry about yourself. Pull any funny stuff and I just as soon shoot you and make my job easier.”

  “No you won’t,” the outlaw leader said. “You’re too full of honor and duty. Otherwise you would’ve let that Apache bounty hunter have at us.”

  “Lucky for you I didn’t. But, now I’m tired. I get mean when I’m tired and shooting you might just might make me feel better.”

  “Now you’re starting to sound like that Apache friend of yours,” Noonan said.

  It was several minutes before the banker had fully revived. The marshal lifted Hadley into a sitting position and propped his back against the trunk of the tree. He let him rest awhile and gave him more water; controlling the banker’s intake, lest he overdo it too fast.

  As Hadley gained strength, the marshal explained that he had three of the bank robbers in tow and was on his way back to Dry Wells.

  “What about the others? And my wife?”

  “She was all right, the last time I saw her. But, the others got away and took her with them.” He didn’t want to tell the banker that his wife seemed to be in league with the outlaws.

  Lee Hadley looked up at the prisoners, still tied atop their horses. “If anything happens to my wife…….” He started to bluster, but Charlie Noonan cut him off with a laugh.

  “You’ll dance a jig over her grave.” He spat a shot of tobacco juice to the side. “She told us all about you, Mister. Couldn’t get away from you fast enough.”

  “Shut up!” Coburn warned the old outlaw. Then to Hadley, “What’s he talking about?”

  Hadley’s eyes darted from side to side as he tried to think of an answer. “I don’t know. All I know is, I want my wife back, unharmed.”

  Coburn let it go at that, although he was sure there was something the banker wasn’t telling him. “Never mind them,” the marshal said. “Just settle down. And when you feel up to it, I’d like to hear how you happened to be way out here alone.”

  Hadley, then, relayed the details of the Apache attack on the posse, leaving out the fact that he had fled the scene fearing for his own life. He also left out that he had insisted on forming a posse and had offered a reward for the return of his wife and the bank’s money.

  “The Apaches got them all,” Hadley had said. “I had fallen from my horse and was stunned for a moment. By the time I came to, it was about over. I knew there was nothing I could do so I just lay still and hoped they weren’t out for scalps. When they rode on, I found a horse and tried to find my way home. I guess I got lost.”

  “I told Meade not to take a posse out,” Coburn said, disgruntled. “I can’t understand him going against my advice.”

  “He said that he thought you were getting too old for the job, Marshal.” Hadley knew this would infuriate Coburn and keep him from asking too many questions.

  The marshal was silent for a while, thinking. He gazed up at the lowering sun and said, “It’s getting late in the day. I hate to make camp so early, but you need some rest and some nourishment, so we’ll bed down here for the night. Hopefully, you’ll be strong enough to move out with us early in the morning.”

  Further to the south and coming from the west a lone rider had followed the twisted trail, the banker had left behind. He had also seen the buzzards in the sky and had hurried off in that direction. With any luck Eli Cobb, thought to himself, the weasel of a banker was still alive and able to pay a reward for the return of his wife. If not, the Noonan gang was still out there and he would be glad to pick up a bounty on any or all of them. He rode on.

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 
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