Morris Rybeck lowered his eyes from the mute storm clouds in the west, inky with smothered thunderbolts. He leaned forward in the high-cantled saddle and wriggled his hips a couple of times, working the stiffness from his back and flexing blood down into his legs. He had pressed himself hard that day, allowing for only a couple of brief halts to eat and rest his horse, and now his muscles were weary from the long ride. More than sixty miles had been covered, and he was weary hours before he laid eyes on his objective.
Dead Gulch, Arizona, appeared like a small island before him, floating in late evening shadow, and a dozen lights shimmered as though with heat haze. The main street curved slightly along the valley floor, and from his viewpoint all he could tell was that it was small, supporting less than two hundred people judging by the painted frame houses tenaciously hugging the outskirts of the town.
He stood in the stirrups hoping to see more, something revealing about this unnamed and shallow valley; but as he did, the last of the sun fell below the western horizon and the town was wrapped in the coolness of night. Midnight, a tall, glassy black, tossed his great head and shook out his mane. The big black was eyeing the lights, ears pointed forward, and Morris knew from past experience that he wanted the comfort a stall provided.
Affectionately, Morris patted the animal’s sweaty neck and stroked between his ears, then settled back into the saddle and gathered in the reins. Clucking softly he touched heels to Midnight’s flanks and they picked their careful way down the sloping hill before them, his tired eyes alight with anticipation.
The past few weeks had been hectic as this monumental day hurtled toward him with the speed and inevitability of a falling meteor.
Today marked the first anniversary of County Sheriff Bubba Rybeck’s murder, Morris’s twin brother. Morris had been in Texas when he learned about his brother’s death, from a man sent down to kill him. It was luck more than skill that saved him from sharing his twin’s fate. His horse swerved at the right moment and Morris, though scared and confused at the sudden change in events, returned fire and shot his first man.
Now all he had to go on was a name and description of one of the two men responsible for the crimes against him and his brother—assuming what little he could get from the hired killer before he breathed his last breath was the honest truth—and was on his way to force some closure out of the situation. The wind was at his back, a light hand urging him on.
Tall and thick-chested, his eyes creased at the corners and piercing as a Kiowa lance, he slouched loosely in the saddle, his manner relaxed and careless. He wore a stiff-brimmed felt Stetson hat sporting a gray band, and a Navy Colt slapped his thigh, its smooth butt testifying to frequent use. He was young, barely in his twenties, but he had the look of a man who has seen and done much.
As he entered Dead Gulch from the west, a peal of thunder echoed across the heavens like a herald proclaiming the seriousness of his arrival. Only a handful of people were on the streets, several of them stopped what they were doing to watch the newcomer enter their quiet little town.
Morris saw disbelief etched on more than one face, one showed shock even. It was as though they were witnessing something in the flesh that had been confined to their dreams prior to that moment. In a way, the twin felt they would be justified if they entertained that very thought. He felt like a walking nightmare.
He took his time riding through the center of town, looking neither to the right nor to the left. His peripheral vision was what he relied on to study the street for anyone showing the faintest sign of aggression, but he spied nothing that aroused his interest. The stares that aimed his direction went ignored because they were to be expected, and he rode on.
If anyone had been foolish enough as to welcome him into town with outstretched arms, that person would have found themselves greeted back by the business end of a pistol. He had no friends in town, nor was he searching for any. He was there to do his brother justice.
A sudden gust of wind eddied through the street, sending dust, dry leaves, and bits of branches swirling around Midnight’s hooves like infinitesimal tornadoes. The leather strings on both sides of the saddle slapped restlessly against his legs. The storm clouds were not only in the west now. Menacing jet-black thunderheads slowly materialized out of the lightless night directly overhead.
He reined the black to a halt in front of the Killman Saloon, the town’s only watering hole, just as a drunken cowboy ran his horse down the middle of the main thoroughfare, waving a coiled rope and yelling as though an imaginary calf was successfully eluding him. Morris remembered such days, but felt he could no longer indulge in such fancies. When strangers wanted you dead, it was wise to change certain aspects of your life. Getting blasted by alcohol and losing his reasoning in the process was one of many changes over the past year.
Morris slid to the ground and tied the reins to the hitch rack, straightened the saddle, and loosened the saddle girth. The black looked at him as though silently asking why he was not being put into a livery, where there was plenty of food and a chance at rest.
“Don’t worry, big fella. You’ll get there eventually,” he assured the animal, hitching at his gun belt.
He should place the beast in a tie stall before he did anything else, especially after what amounted to a three week long ride, but this was not a social visit. It was possible his appearance in town would meet with opposition, therefore the black would stand ready to ride in case a quick departure became necessary. Midnight was beat, but Morris had every confidence in his endurance. The black never failed him.
“Evelyn, doesn’t that man there bear an uncanny resemblance to our late sheriff?”
The quietly spoken words hung in the air all by themselves as Morris aimed his gas-flame-blue eyes at a pair of middle-aged women, frozen on the raised sidewalk and gawking down at him with startled doe eyes. The speaker was a heavily jowled lady with too much rouge smeared onto her cheeks to conceal blemishes in her skin. She jerked a hand up to her neck and pulled her blouse collar closed, gripped the garment in a white-knuckled fist as though a sudden draft of air had made its way down her back.
Her friend was tall and skinny, with a remarkable sense for fashion. She repeatedly blinked her eyes as though trying to fend off the beginnings of a faint, while her mouth hung open, emitting a wordless keening. Her body rocked slightly with the fluctuation of the wind.
In the distance to the west, a jagged, white-hot finger of lightning flashed across the sky, followed several seconds later by a frightening clap of thunder. As the atmosphere seemed to grow charged with electricity, Morris squinted against the vivid silver-blue afterimage burned across his vision. He felt the hair on his arms lifting in the charged air.
When he could see again without discomfort, he found the two women standing on the sidewalk, exactly as before, motionless and withdrawn. He offered them his winning, lopsided smile; his ruggedly handsome face was instantly transformed, crinkling the corners of his eyes with humor lines and revealing a devious streak.
“Good evening, ladies,” he greeted courteously, then tipped his hat in a gesture that managed to be both condescending and respectful at the same time.
Their eyes widened with such fear and intensity Morris almost looked behind him. Someone watching the exchange from afar would have reasoned, understandably, that his words were a threat to do the two women of irreparable and inconceivable harm, rather than a casual greeting.
The two women looked at one another. They stood this way for a long moment, as if reading each other’s thoughts, and then they rushed past him on the sidewalk, watching to make sure he did not come closer.
“Have a good night.” He touched his fingers to the brim of his hat. Once past him, the women quickened their steps, glancing over their shoulders until they were out of sight around a corner.
Morris chuckled to himself. The woman clutching her shirt collar closed with a death-like grip had appeared as though she might pass out from lack of oxygen to her brain. Apparently, these ladies had known his brother and was aware of his brutal demise. Lightning flickered. A rumble of thunder rolled across the land, and the western breeze stiffened. Morris raised his eyes to the ominous black clouds, hovering there as if unable to decide how much the puny humans could take. By the time another bolt lashed from the sky, he had an idea.
Taking the reins of the black in his left hand, he led the weary beast toward the livery barn. As he approached the building with the faded lettering Pickinpaugh’s Stable painted over the barn, heads slid away from corners, doors slammed shut with resounding finality, a sign creaked back and forth on rusty hinges. He walked on. His boot soles crunched on the loose gravel, churned up by wagon wheels and kicked to the edges of the street, feeling like a man who had taken on an onerous and completely impossible task.
The livery was lantern-lit. Morris removed the saddle, blanket, and bridle, then rubbed Midnight down and locked him in a stall. Delving into his pants pocket, he soon produced money in silver, paying the liveryman in need of a bath and possibly even delicing, more than the quoted price for a single night of care.
After tucking a yellow slicker under his left arm Morris made for the open front doors, throwing back over his shoulder as he went, “Be sure to give him a good bait of oats and some corn.”
“Sorry, can’t do that, pardner. Oats and corn are reserved for stage horses and the boss’ personal mount,” asserted the hostler, sucking self-importantly on his rotten teeth. “However, I will be more’n happy to fork ’im some hay. ’Bout all I can do for ya.”
The words were barely out of his mouth before Morris was back in front of him. Rage flashed through the twin like a fire burning out of control, and he was just able to hold back from reaching out and throttling the man. It was irrational, he knew, but the intensity of the feeling still shook him from head to toe. His nostrils flared wide, and he sent a look the hostler’s way that gave warning as to what was happening to his temper.
“You will feed my horse oats and corn or I will be forced to do it myself, over your dead body,” Morris said, his voice shaking with repressed emotion.
The hostler could feel the icy pressure of the customer’s eyes on him, but he couldn’t raise his own to meet them.
“And you better think twice before tellin’ me what you can or cannot do. I fervently hope”—Morris reached out and jabbed his finger into the hostler’s sternum—“I’ve made myself clear on all this. Or do I need to elaborate further?”
The hostler adamantly shook his head at the offer, staring down at the rough hands of the stranger before him, one of which kept opening and closing near a low-slung pistol. The motion had him hypnotized. It would have been inaccurate to say that he was smart, but even a fool knew the well-worn stock meant the weapon was often handled. Then there was the flame in the stranger’s eyes that he could see without looking him square in the face, claiming that he relished being given the slightest provocation of using the weapon once more.
“I—I don’t mean nothin’, mister,” stammered the terrified liveryman, then said no more for suddenly a clap of thunder crashed, a vast sound that consumed the heavens and was so loud that he flinched. A flash of lightning dazzled the doorway with its brilliance.
The twin started to speak, but the hostler never noticed. “Just tellin’ you what the rules are around here, is all. But I think I can make an exception. Seein’ how it’s important I do. Just don’t tell my boss I did it. He would probably chase both of us out of the building, and maybe out of town. I’ll jump right on it.”
That last brought a bark of harsh laughter from the twin. The hostler was clearly too terrified to venture a move while Morris was still within shouting distance. The stable hand hung his head and unconsciously braced his feet, as if expecting a physical blow to descend from out of nowhere.
His meekness was an irritating counterpoint to Morris’s sharpness. He inhaled deeply through his nose. The smell of horse and horse liniment, of hay and old leather helped calm him back down to a reasonable level. It was just enough to keep him from killing the hostler in cold blood.
Midnight snorted and pawed the ground inside the stall, producing a loud metallic clang. Morris had acquired the glassy black from a mild-mannered Ute two years ago, instantly liking the deep chest which indicated room for lungs and heart and therefore an abundance of stamina and strength, but now the beast seemed to feel his owners’ impatience and agitation.
I’ve got to get ahold of myself, Morris thought.
“There’s something else I guess I should tell you while we are standin’ around havin’ us a sociable chat,” Morris said at length. He jabbed a little harder this time. “Under no circumstances are you to touch the horse. This is more for your safety rather than any kind of predilection on my part. He is kind of particular ’bout who touches him, so I advise you to keep your distance. Understood?”
The hostler took a half a step backward, bringing his head up to give the fiery-eyed animal a once over. He dutifully nodded his head, then lowered his chin once more.
Morris clenched his jaw, the muscles bunching under the skin like pine knots, and reluctantly turned away. It was a good thing for the hostler’s current state of health that he offered no lip, but Morris had been hoping for a little bit of life. He left the livery barn before the urge to draw iron and pistol-whipping the man into unconsciousness became more than he could suppress.
Wind raked the street. The sky was distended with a waiting overflow. It would not be long before the land was washed clean.
While on his way down to the hotel to set in motion the plan that had come to him during a lightning flash, Morris thought about the task that had brought him to that god-forsaken, two-bit little town. There would be no joy in it for him, but that was all right. He had just finished a roundup for his boss and was given the okay to take all the time he needed to take care of some personal business.
People like the hostler were a part of why he was there. Men who were too timid or too cowardly to stand up for themselves or for others in times of need, or for what was right and just. Fear trapped them like a flash flood down the canyon of life. A stiff breeze, like the one he now walked through, was enough to make them quake in their boots with unremitting fear. He could never find a good thought for people who kow-towed to bullies, big-mouths, or tyrants.
Or to murderers.
The biggest reason for him being there, however, was the one that had his temper hovering near the breaking point. There were men in the world who killed for little or no gain, men who killed for the pleasure of killing. Then, there were those out there that killed because they had been, to their pea-sized brains at least, offended, brought down in the eyes of their peers. Killing could never be justified, no matter the circumstances or how wronged one may be, but this was worse than wrong. These men were pure evil.
From what he could glean from the hired killer’s broken sentences, the two men he wanted to speak with fell under these two categories. But in the meantime, he felt a dirty look, the wrong word or phrase, would set him off. He could feel himself on the verge of erupting, and he was certain the force of the blow would destroy him along with the unlucky souls who happened to be in town when he vented.
Although he believed that every man residing in Dead Gulch was in some form a spineless wretch deserving of a violent death—they were a despised lot the world would be better off without—he was not there to teach the entire town a lesson. He was there for two men only, two men he estimated had lived for far, far too long.
These men generated a rage in his heart for what they had done to his twin brother, the sort of deep-seated anger that he’d felt for men who abused horses. He had no way of knowing if the two men he sought were still around, but he would find them no matter how long it took. For now, what he needed to do was find a way to rein in his anger, harness the emotion and use it constructively.
Morris treaded the packed dirt down the middle of the street, his boots kicking up a gossamer cloud of dust. The wooden sidewalks in either direction were devoid of people. The town appeared deserted.
The Simpson Hotel, a two-story frame structure, was across the street from the saloon. Morris walked up the steps, adjusted his pistol, and went inside. The lobby was cramped with wall-to-wall maroon carpeting and a grouping of leather chairs positioned around a short table. Two oil lamps, with their sooty globes in place, threw a friendly, yellow glow across the room. Shadows chased one another along the walls of the staircase centered along the left-hand wall.
He crossed to the registration desk, signed in the guest register under an assumed name. He would divulge his true identity to the town when the time was right, and not a moment sooner.
“Howdy there,” he said with an amiable smile. “I’ll be needin’ a room for a while.”
“How long will you be staying with us?” the desk clerk asked.
“A day, two days, perhaps longer. Depends on the hospitality of the place.”
“This is a right hospitable town.”
“I’m sure it is.” Morris noticed that the desk clerk missed the sarcasm in his voice.” I want a second-floor room that overlooks the street.”
“Yes, sir. For one night, that’ll be four bits—” the desk clerk began, but Morris cut him off.
“I will settle the bill when I check out.”
“As you wish.” The clerk turned to a board on the wall behind him and studied it for a moment. Taking a key down from a peg, he looked at the register and said, “You’re in room two-oh-eight, Mr. Horner. Up the stairs to the right.”
Morris took the stairs to the second floor, entered his room and quickly closed and locked the door. There was a bed and washstand, with an armchair and two stools, and a closet at the foot of the bed that did not have the room it required to be opened all the way. A lamp, two candles, and a basin sat on top of the washstand. He lit a candle.
The Navy Colt was easily taken care of, fieldstripped, cleaned, oiled, and loaded for action. Then he stood to the side of the window and watched the street for a time. As far as he could determine from this angle, no one seemed interested in his window or the front of the hotel. Blowing out the candle, he kept watch for one more minute before he was satisfied.
In a hurry now, he stripped the bed of linen and balled the sheets before placing them squarely on the middle of the mattress. Then he added one of the two pillows to the pile and tossed the blanket over the growing mass.
Morris paused for a moment to inspect his handiwork. A bright flash through the lone window lit the interior of the room, rendering the bed and washstand beside it in brilliant contrast to the dark shadows. Pleased with what he saw, a faint smile formed at the corners of his mouth. As perceptive as he knew himself to be, even he could be fooled into believing the lump was a sleeping person.
Departing the room, he entered into a hallway that extended both right and left with a half a dozen doors each way. He stepped across the hall and knocked gently on the door opposite his. A ten second wait brought no sound from inside. Another knock and another ten seconds passed before he forced the door open with his shoulder. A slight squeal of wood on wood was the only protest he received for the intrusion.
After inspecting the dark interior to make certain it was vacant, he stepped inside and pushed the door to. The room was roughly the same size as his, but without the benefit of a closet. Moving to the middle of the room he tied the bottom of his holster to his leg with a leather thong. This was a habit gunfighters got into, and he was no gunfighter, but he saw the logic behind such a move. It ensured that the holster did not hinder a fast draw.
Back out in the hallway with the door closed, he looked for signs of his passage. There was nothing that cried foul. He donned the slicker, leaving it unbuttoned, and moved down the hall. Considering what he had planned, a smile tugged relentlessly at his lips. If things went according to plan he would temporarily become, the most feared man in the territory.
Far off, lightning. Rolling thunder. The clouds roiled in a slow, steady buildup of fury. A calm wind advanced before the storm, bringing with it a faint odor of ozone.
Morris Rybeck slid the leather thong from the hammer of his six-gun, checked the thong holding the holster to his leg. It wasn’t budging.
He hesitated after mounting the steps in front of the Killman Saloon, then stepped to his right and peered through a window obscured with years of grime. His pocket watch told him it was nearly nine o’clock, but inside the saloon there were already fifteen to twenty men, ranchers, wranglers, and farmers, well along in their efforts to become drunk and obstreperous.
Christine McCleary was standing inside the general store owned by her uncle, attentively watching Morris through the window. She was a small woman, standing only five-one, with light blond hair and gentle blue eyes. She was twenty-one and lived in a constant state of fear.
Christine was glad no one could see her. Her heart was fit to burst, and her breath came in short, shallow gasps, causing her to feel light-headed. She was on the verge of passing out, she could feel it. She breathed heavily through her nose, but it did not help. She went right back to panting.
At one time in her life she had been considered beautiful, although there were people out there who would not hesitate to say she was still a raving beauty. But she didn’t think so. The scar running from her left temple clear on down into her jawline was all she could focus on when she gazed into a mirror, which was an indulgence she rarely granted herself. If she stood at the right angle, she could see her face reflected in the window. She took care to not stand at the right angle.
The ugly scar had been a gift from Frank Link for the serious crime of being Bubba Rybeck’s beloved. It was a lesson the citizens of Dead Gulch immediately took to heart. Any other time there would have been no shortage of men who would call Link to account for the brutal violation of her person, but Link had the town subdued. No one had lifted a hand in her defense, not when they knew the circumstances surrounding Bubba’s death.
Her eyes blurred. Even after a year, Bubba’s murder still gouged at her heart and made her mind go numb with grief. By the time she scrubbed the tears from her eyes, the man she had heard so much about, the man who was the spitting image of the love of her life, was gone from the saloon window.
Please watch over him, Lord, Christine mouthed silently and then stepped back from the window.
A couple of miles away, lightning spiderwebbed across the sky, tentacle upon tentacle reaching out to burst the storm clouds wide open. Slivers of ashen rain fell to the west. Lightning came once more, the distance muting the explosion, but the light that arose from it displayed Morris’s dark silhouette in the doorway like a murderous wraith come to exact vengeance for a lifetime of wrongs.
The men in the saloon stopped talking as Morris released the batwing doors and stepped into the room. Even the storm fell silent, holding its breath as though awaiting a fate that seemed all but imminent. The silence was oppressive, pushing down on the room as though with a physical weight.
Morris looked around the room. It was longer than it was wide, with the bar taking up most of the left side and a dozen tables to the right. Overhead was a thick-beamed ceiling high enough to hang a man from. The air bore the stench of tobacco, whiskey, and burning coal oil.
“A shot o’ whiskey,” Morris ordered into the silence, slapping the dust off his clothes.
The handlebar-mustached bartender had his back to Morris, drawing a beer from the tap. His head sat nearly on top of a set of bulky shoulders, and he tried to jerk it in impatience. Then, noticing how quiet his establishment had become, he turned around.
He set the beer aside, staring at Morris with distended eyes, and wiped his hands on the front of his long white apron. Morris sidled up to the otherwise empty bar, of half a mind to reach out and push the grotesquely protruding orbs back into the barman’s eye sockets.
The wind regained its voice, floating a soft moan into the motionless room. The zephyr appeared to hold sway over the bartender’s eyelids, causing them to open and close with a jittery speed. They reminded the twin of broken shutters flapping restlessly in a wind.
“A shot o’ whiskey, if it isn’t too much of an imposition,” he repeated gruffly, laying his left hand on the counter. He feigned a disinterested air at the reaction his presence was creating. But as long as no one lifted a finger against him, he could care less what they did.
“One shot of whiskey,” the bartender said, taking a second look at Morris and becoming obsequious at once. “Sure! Comin’ right up.” But still, he made no move to fill the order. Instead, he glanced toward one of the tables, as if to receive instructions on what to do. Morris wanted to look over his shoulder but resisted the urge.
With a diminutive nod to someone he clearly deferred to, the bartender grabbed a shot glass and set it in front of him on the counter. “Pardon the hesitation,” he stated, bringing his eyes to bear on Morris. He cleared his throat and reached behind him, grasping a clear bottle from the same shelf where he had gotten the glass, unstopped the bottle with his teeth, and began pouring the contents into the glass. “The sudden change in weather has got me all backward,” he mumbled around the cork.
Saying nothing in response, the twin snatched the whiskey bottle out of the barman’s limp fingers. No move was made to stop him. Shrugging his shoulders, the bartender took a dirty rag from his apron string and cursorily mopped the top of the bar before spitting the cork on the floor and drifting away.
Morris palmed the half-filled shot glass and moved to the back of the room, taking up an insular position at the end of the bar. With his left hand he finished pouring the drink. He shot it back and chased it with a second, feeling the burn. It was the most liquor he had consumed at one time since the attempt on his life.
Unlike the hotel lobby, the saloon was well-lit and afforded him a clear view of everyone in the room. He cast his eyes slowly over the men, hovering on every face. Then he looked away from each man with a lazy blink, as if he had weighed them and summarily dismissed them as unimportant, inconsequential.
All with the exception of one man.
Morris’s anger leapt to new heights as he realized one of the men he sought was there in the room with him. He tried not to glare at the man sitting alone, but as soon as he looked elsewhere, his eyes returned. The man must have felt the animosity emanating from his eyes, for he raised his head slowly, insolently, and looked at him. His cold, pale blue eyes blazed with playful malice.
Morris studied the man a little closer. He was dressed in an outfit popular with gamblers, had a wide gun belt, with a large pistol riding high in a holster under his vest. His blond hair was so light it appeared to be white, and he had a lean but powerful body. But what differentiated him from anyone else was the jagged scar on his right cheek, giving his lips an ugly down-hook curve.
The man watched Morris for a full minute, then one side of his lips furled in an unconscious snarl. Morris forced his eyes elsewhere, poured himself another drink. For some unfathomable reason his hand shook, and amber liquid spilled over the back of his hand. It was hard being in the same room as one of his brother’s murderers and knowing he could do nothing to hurt the man, not yet anyways.
In the mirror behind the bar, spiderwebbed with cracks that distorted the image, he caught a glimpse of a hand signal from the man with the scar. It was a small wrist flick down low, as if he was telling someone to follow his cue. Morris was certain no one else had seen this, not counting whoever the gesture was intended for.
Scarface rose from his chair, the wooden legs scraping raucously across the sawdust-strewn floor, and advanced on the bar, his slow, heavy steps somehow conveying insolence. A change came over the room, a quiet that spoke more of fear than of respect, Morris believed.
The twin let go of the glass and turned toward the approaching figure, following him with his eyes just shy of staring. Or so he hoped. He did not want to start something till he had a chat with the man, or knew what he might face. Conversation started up again as men found their voices.
The room lit up with storm light, once, twice, and again. Thunder and wind beat at the saloon walls with a wild abandon. A few moments later an ear-splitting bang sounded outside. A dusting of mortar drifted down from the rafters as the building vibrated. The tremendous clamor left Morris’s already frayed nerves in tatters.
Another hush descended over the room, a silence made all the more palpable by a drop in the wind.
The man with the nasty scar came to a halt five feet away from Morris, and the twin found his pale eyes looking at him rather intently. “Howdy, stranger. I’m Frank Link,” he said, offering his hand.
Morris made no move to take it.