Apache gunhawk, p.23
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       Apache Gunhawk, p.23

           Monogram Press
 
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For the second time in as many days, Brace Coburn awoke from his slumber with a heaviness on his chest. Only this time, it was not yet morning, though the sky above and to the east was starting to gray with approaching dawn and the weight on his chest was not a foot, but the muzzle of his own rifle barrel.

  Four figures in the shape of men towered over him, their silhouettes back dropped against the light of the waning moon. As the sleep fled his eyes, they focused on the man holding the rifle against him. It was the banker, Lee Hadley. On both sides of him stood the members of the Noonan gang, gazing down at him. Bill Noonan had a pistol in his hand and the marshal felt the lack of weight in his holster.

  “Don’t tell me,” Coburn scoffed. “You let these guys, go.”

  “OK, I won’t tell you,” Hadley chuckled. “But as you can see, I did.” There was a tone of triumph in his voice.

  “Funny man,” Coburn said. “Excuse me if I don’t laugh. That rifle sticking into me won’t let me wiggle my cage.”

  Hadley eased off with the weapon and stepped back a step.

  “That’s better,” Coburn growled as he pushed himself into a sitting position. Then he said, “So what’s in for you, letting these bad boys go?”

  “Simple, Marshal,” Hadley smirked. “I want my wife back. I made a deal with these gentlemen.”

  “Let me guess,” Coburn said sarcastically. “You let them loose, they give you your wife back.”

  “Something like that, yes.”

  “And you think you can trust them? You’re dumber than I thought.”

  “That’s not nice, Marshal,” Bill Noonan spoke up. “I’m a man of my word. I’ll take him to where his wife is.”

  “What if she doesn’t want to go back with him?”

  “Why shouldn’t she?” Hadley blustered. “She’s my wife. Why wouldn’t she want to go back with me?”

  No one seemed to offer an answer to Hadley’s rhetorical question, but it did seem to save Noonan from answering the original question.

  “We’re going to be riding on, Marshal,” Noonan said. “You’ll see we are taking the banker with us.”

  “You woke me up, just to tell me that?” Coburn complained.

  “No. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t follow us.” He handed the pistol to Sid. “You know what to do. We’ll start saddling up.” Then to Charlie, “Charlie, pick up the man’s saddle.”

  Then with a forced wry smile, he said to Coburn, “Good bye, Marshal.” He turned and walked away, Hadley and Charlie followed close on his heels.

  They had just finished getting the horses ready when they heard the pistol shot behind them. Bill winced a little to himself and hoped the others hadn’t noticed. He swung into the saddle and wheeled his horse around, almost in place. He could see Sid Denglert advancing toward them, his gun arm drooping straight downward with the weight of the pistol still gripped in his hand. A wisp of smoke drifted upward from the pistol barrel.

  As he came up behind the Lee Hadley, he shoved the still hot barrel into the banker’s ribs. “I’ll just relieve you of your weapons, Mr. Banker,” Sid said flatly. Charlie Noonan reached into the banker’s holster and plucked the six shooter from it. He dropped it into his own leather, then climbed aboard the mount Hadley had saddled. The rifle had already been secured in the rifle boot. He pulled it free and tossed it to his brother. Hadley glared at Bill Noonan. “I thought you said you were a man of your word,” he growled.

  “I said, I’d take you along,” Bill answered. “But I’m not going to trust you with a gun.”

  “Best you mount up, Mister.” Sid prodded him once more with the gun barrel. Hadley pursed his lips, restraining himself from venting his anger; then mounted up. Sid sheathed his weapon, then climbed stiffly into the saddle.

  The sky to the east was graying more now as they gigged their mounts forward and rode off over a near horizon, disappearing into the oncoming dawn.

  From out of the brush a lone rider emerged. Eli Cobb smiled to himself as he watched the outlaws ride away. When he was sure they had enough of a head start, he urged his horse into a trot and followed at a distance.

  The camp of the night before was now empty, save for the still form of Marshal Brace Coburn lying in the grass. A slight morning breeze worried his thinning hair.

  Hawk’s grayish black mora stood idly, silhouetted against the near dawn sky; his sleek long neck arched downward as he cropped the sparse grass beneath him. Little Bill Noonan’s body drooped forward over the horse’s withers while both hands clutched desperately to the saddle’s pommel. The gaping wound in his side was bleeding profusely and blood oozed between his fingers making his grasp become more slippery and less effective. He was weak from loss of blood and only the approaching unconsciousness could soothe the burning pain. He could no longer urge the horse along and he had no strength left to dismount. He just sat there in the saddle; waiting to lose consciousness and fall from the saddle.

  This was how Tom Noonan and Julie Hadley found him. Tom had dismounted and rushed to his brother’s side, just in time to catch him falling from the saddle. He half held Little Bill in his arms and gazed into his ashen face. The eyes were glazed over, but Tom could tell that his brother was still alive, although only barely. He shoved the bloody form upward, back into the saddle. He gathered the reins and swung up behind Little Bill, holding him in place.

  Looking back over his shoulder, along their back trail, knowing that it would have been only a matter of time before Hawk would have rounded up the one remaining stray horse and would have been on their trail, Tom pointed to the rock strewn high ground to the left of the trail and said to Julie, “Hawk will be on our tail soon. We can’t outrun him with a wounded man, so we’ll ride up into those rocks and hide out. Take the reins to my horse and lead him, while I hold Little Bill in the saddle.”

  Julie did as instructed, refraining from trying to urge him to just leave his brother behind. What would Tom think of her if she ever suggested such a thing? It was not so long ago, that Little Bill Noonan was about to shoot his own brother. So why should Tom help him now? She knew the answer and she wouldn’t want Tom to be any other way.

  Footing for the horses had been precarious, to say the least, but they managed to reach the high ground without mishap. They found refuge behind a pile of large boulders where they could see the trail below and hopefully remain unseen in their hiding place. Tom had lowered Little Bill to the ground and placed him on his back. Little Bill’s eyes fluttered open momentarily and he coughed, spitting up blood, as he tried to force a smile. “Still the noble fool,” he gasped. His breathing was deep and labored. “I’d have left you to die.” He winced and his eyes clamped shut again.

  “Good thing for you, I’m not you,” Tom said ripping a portion of his brother’s blood soaked shirt away to examine the wound. He grimaced just as Little Bill opened his eyes again.

  “Bad.” It was a statement.

  “Yes,” Tom admitted. The blood was pulsing out of the gaping wound. “We’ve got to stop the bleeding.”

  “Tom!” Julie said rushing to him. “He’s coming. Hawk’s down there!”

  Tom stood and peeked around the boulder. His lips pursed with frustration. He needed to take care of his brother now, but he knew he had to deal with the bounty hunter first. He glanced down at Little Bill and the outlaw could see what Tom was thinking. “Don’t worry about me, little brother.” He coughed again. “I’m finished anyways. There’s a rifle on Hawk’s horse. Get it……” His back suddenly arched upward and his tongue lolled out the side of his blood-filled mouth. His eyes glazed over and then with a deep breath and sigh, his body relaxed. He was gone.

  Tom Noonan swallowed hard. A huge lump ached in his throat. Then anger surged through his veins with the heat of a branding iron. He leaped toward the mora, reaching for the rifle, so suddenly that the grayish black horse shied backward, snorting and neighing.

  Disregarding the noise, Noonan slipped the rifle from the boot and darted bac
k to the boulder, levering a round in place and slapping the rifle barrel over the top of the big rock. Hawk was almost directly below them now. Tom pivoted the rifle barrel, bringing the front sight into alignment with Hawk’s body, sitting tall in the saddle. Without deliberation or thought, Noonan quickly squeezed the trigger. The roar was deafening and gunsmoke from the muzzle floated upward into the morning air clouding his vision momentarily.

  Whether the noise of the skittish mora or the flash of a rifle barrel or just the sixth sense of an Apache, had warned him, the bounty hunter had slid his mount to a halt, jerking the reins hard enough to rear him onto his hind legs, at the exact moment that Noonan fired. The lead slug tore into the horse’s neck and he toppled over, half spilling Hawk from the saddle, while he half jumped to fall behind the animal’s body, just barely pulling his right leg out from under the falling bulk. He rolled, spun around and crawled back on his stomach to peer over the horse’s midsection; his service revolver already in hand and ready. The dying animal wheezed with labored breath and twitched and jerked beneath him.

  Hawk pulled his weapon around and squeezed the trigger, sending a bullet into the dying animal’s brain, putting him out of his misery. As if in echo to the shot, Tom Noonan, realizing his pursuer was still alive, fired again. Then two more times in rapid succession; bullets slapping into the thick hide of the dead horse. Hawk cringed back close behind his barricade of animal flesh. He had located his assailant’s position in the rocks from the upward drift of powder smoke and determined that the shooter was well out of pistol range. Firing back would do no good. It would only tell the attacker that his quarry was still alive.

  The bounty hunter rolled to his back, with shoulders propped against the dead horse’s belly. He flipped the pistol’s cartridge cylinder gate open, ejected the spent shell, replaced it with a fresh one, snapped the cylinder shut, and tested its mechanism by rolling it along his sleeve. He rolled back onto his stomach and peered over the carcass, relocating where the rifle fire had come from.

  Hawk was fairly sure that Little Bill Noonan was the shooter, for he had ridden off on Hawk’s horse and Hawk’s Winchester was still in the saddle boot. He knew he had put lead into the outlaw as he sped away and he couldn’t be in very good shape. He would probably stay in his hiding place in the rocks until he was sure he was safe from the bounty hunter. Hawk decided he would play possum for a while. Then he would inch himself backward from the cover of the dead horse until he reached the bank on his side of the trail. From there, he could roll into the gully that ran alongside the trail and crawl back down the trail until he could find cover enough to circle up around the boulders.

  “Did you get him?” Julie asked with hope. She leaned over Tom’s shoulder.

  “I don’t know,” Tom answered without taking his eyes off the dead horse and the trail below. “Nothing’s moving down there, but he could be playing possum.”

  “Oh Tom,” Julie pleaded. “Let’s get away from here. He’s without a horse. He can’t catch us.”

  “You’re right,” Tom agreed. “But we’ll have to move fast before he can maneuver around to get in pistol range. Get on your horse while I load up Little Bill’s body.”

  “What? You can’t do that. It’ll take too long and it’ll only slow us down,” she protested, eyes flashing.

  “I can’t just leave him here,” Tom retorted.

  “He’s dead,” Julie reminded him. “There’s nothing you can do for him, now.”

  “I can’t leave him here for the buzzards and wolves.” He was already dragging his brother’s body toward the mora. “Now do as I tell you,” his words were labored with the exertion. “Get on your horse and head off down the back side of this bank. I’ll be right behind you, just as soon as I secure Little Bill over the saddle.”

  “No. I’ll wait for you.”

  “Get started!” Tom snapped as he lifted his brother’s body face down over the saddle; head and arms dangling loose on one side of the horse and feet hanging off the other side.

  Julie felt hurt by the anger in Tom’s tone and eyes, but with reluctant understanding, she climbed into her saddle, wheeled the horse around and started down the rocky bank, while Tom finished lashing Little Bill’s hands and feet together, so the body would not fall off the horse’s back.

  Tom took up the reins of Hawk’s horse in one hand, then swung aboard his own mount and led off after Julie. She was already half way down the bank, as he followed and his attention was entirely on catching up to her. He didn’t see the movement at the foot of the bank until it was too late.

  Just as Julie’s horse reached the foot of the bank, a lithe figure leaped from the scrub brush and grasped the bridle of Julie’s mount. The horse twisted and reared, trying to fight off its sudden attacker. Julie almost fell from the saddle, but her assailant swung aboard the horse behind her, wrapping his powerful arms about her, holding her in the saddle, while he kicked the animal forward into a gallop toward the flatland below.

  Tom Noonan instinctively dropped the reins of the mora, leaving the body behind and freeing his hands to grope for the Winchester in the saddle boot, but by the time he brought the weapon to bear, the Apache bounty hunter was already in the saddle with Julie and he couldn’t risk a shot. He frantically spurred his horse into a half slide and half run down the rocky bank after them.

  By the time, he reached the bottom of the embankment, the horse and two riders were nowhere to be seen. Only thick dust hanging in a cloud before him marked their passage.

  They couldn’t have gone far, Tom told himself. The damned Apache had to be hiding close by, just waiting for him to come get Julie back. He lifted his rifle high, holding it with his right hand around the stock and finger on the trigger. He gigged his horse forward lightly, keeping the animal at a slow walk. His eyes methodically roamed the country side, carefully watching for any sign that might give a hint as to the bounty hunter’s position.

  “Hawk!” Noonan shouted, his voice echoing across the open plains. “I know you’re out there! Show yourself.”

  “I’m right here, behind you Noonan.” The voice was calm and low, but it startled him. He jerked his horse around, churning up dust.

  The Apache bounty hunter sat his horse, mere yards behind the outlaw. He held Julie firmly in front of him, in the saddle. His arm was wrapped around her and his pistol was gripped tightly in his hand.

  “Now if you’re through with this foolishness, slide that rifle back into the boot and get of your horse.”

  “How….? How did you get behind me?” Tom blustered with surprise.

  “I’m an Apache. Remember?”

  “Savage is more like it.”

  “Red or white, there’s savages on both sides,” Hawk said. “Seems to me, though, you’re the one with a price on his head.” Then he added, “So, what’s it going to be, Noonan? You going to put that rifle away like I told you? Or do I have to blow you out of the saddle. Dead or alive, I get paid anyhow. Makes no difference to me.”

  “Shoot him, Tom!” Julie shouted.

  “Go ahead,” Hawk retorted. “But you’ll have to shoot through the girl first. I don’t think you want to do that.”

  “Don’t listen to him, Tom. He’ll kill us anyways.” Julie pleaded.

  Tom thought about it for a moment. Then, sighed with resignation and slid the weapon back into the saddle boot.

  Julie’s shoulders slumped with defeat. “Oh, Tom,” she said. “Why didn’t you listen to me?”

  “Because, he’s a smart man,” Hawk answered for him. “And I believe he really cares for you.”

  “Now,” Hawk said, easing back on the horse’s rump and pushing Julie to the side. “Everybody down. We’re stopping here for a while. Seems to me, you two were belly aching about food, just before all this foolishness started.”

  CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

 
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