Drifting into New Mexico Territory, Conrad Morgan, The Loner is turning his back on the past. Then he rides up on a wagon train of pioneers—and straight into an inferno of death and revenge…
Out Of The Heat. Into The Fire…
Led by a charismatic fool, a group of pioneers are crossing Apache territory, blind to the danger around them. The Loner would ignore the passing pilgrims if it weren’t for a beautiful woman. Then, when he turns his back, the Apaches strike. The night is lit with an unholy fire. Mutilated bodies are left behind. And four women are taken prisoner across the Rio Grande…
To go where no man should go alone, The Loner joins a brutal band of scalp hunters. His plan is to strike before a notorious Mexican slaver gets a hold of the captive women. But the first shots The Loner fires might be the easy ones. Getting out of Mexico alive—with two bands of enemies behind him and miles of desert straight ahead—will be the fight of The Loner’s life…
The place didn’t have a name, at least as far as the rider on the dun horse knew. Probably the people who lived there called it something, but the tall young man didn’t care about that.
He just wanted a drink after riding all day in the baking New Mexico sun. One of the handful of buildings alongside the trail was a saloon, so that was all that mattered to him.
He reined the dun over to the hitch rail in front of the saloon and swung down from the saddle. Most of the buildings in the tiny settlement were adobe, but this one was constructed of lumber—freighted in from somewhere—and even had a porch and a false front giving the illusion of a second story.
MAHONEY ’S—BEER—LIQUOR—GAMBLING was painted on the false front. Right to the point, the newcomer thought. He was a little surprised WHORES wasn’t painted up there too.
The man was broad-shouldered, lean but powerfully built. He wore brown whipcord trousers tucked into high-topped brown boots, a buckskin shirt unadorned with fringe, and a wide-brimmed, flat-crowned brown Stetson with conchos on the band.
A Colt .45 revolver with black grips rode easily in the holster on his right hip. In sheaths strapped to his saddle were a nearly new Winchester repeater and an older Sharps Big Fifty carbine. With the dawn of a new century not that far away, it was getting more unusual to see men armed like that, even on the frontier, but it wasn’t yet uncommon.
He wrapped the dun’s reins around the hitch rack and stepped up into the blessed shade of the saloon’s porch. Even though the air was blistering hot and dry, it helped to get out of the direct rays of the sun.
The stranger was thirsty, but before he stepped into the saloon he paused and leaned on the porch railing for a moment to look along the street. He was in the habit of being cautious and studying his surroundings.
Next to the saloon was a mercantile, beyond that a corral, and on the other side of the corral a single-story adobe hotel. Across the street was a blacksmith shop, a cantina, and a couple of adobe houses. That was the extent of the settlement.
A dog, panting in front of the blacksmith shop, was the only sign of life in the community.
The stranger’s dun was the only horse tied at the hitch racks, although a few unsaddled mounts shifted around listlessly in the corral.
Everybody was taking a siesta, the man thought. Given the heat of the day, it wasn’t surprising. Nobody wanted to move around much.
But somebody was moving, and in a hurry, he realized as he glanced to the south. His blue eyes narrowed at the sight of the dust cloud rolling up into the brassy sky.
Usually when somebody was moving that fast in such heat, it meant trouble. But it couldn’t have anything to do with him. He had just ridden in and had never been there before.
With a mental shrug, he turned, pushed through the batwings, and walked into Mahoney’s Saloon.
The stranger was the only customer. The place would soon go broke if it never did any more business than this. The bar was empty, and so were the half-dozen tables. A single bartender stood behind the hardwood, aimlessly wiping a cloth over it.
He looked up in surprise at the stranger’s entrance. He was a middle-aged man with a pinched face and was mostly bald with a fringe of graying red hair around his ears. “Afternoon, mister.”
“It surely is,” the stranger agreed as he approached the bar. “Is your beer cold?”
“Oh, now, you might as well be asking for a miracle, my friend. The closest cold beer is in Albuquerque or El Paso. But what I have is wet, and
it’ll wash the dust out of your throat if that’s what you’re looking for.”
“It is.” The stranger took a coin out of his pocket and dropped it on the bar.
The bartender frowned. “Beer’s usually four bits.”
“I pay four bits for cold beer. Warm is only worth two.”
The bartender thought for a second and then nodded.
“I suppose that’s fair enough, especially seeing as I don’t exactly have customers beating down my door right now.”
“You may in a few minutes,” the stranger said as the bartender filled a mug from a keg. “I saw some dust headed toward town. Looked like quite a few riders, and judging by the hurry they’re in, they must be thirsty.”
The bartender dropped the mug. It shattered and splashed beer over the floor behind the bar.
“A bunch of riders . . . coming toward town?” he choked out.
“That’s right.” The stranger’s eyes narrowed. “You act like you have a pretty good idea who they are and what they want.”
The bartender kicked the broken glass aside and didn’t bother picking it up. “If your horse isn’t completely played out, I’d advise mounting up and riding out of here right now, mister. You don’t want to be here.”
The bartender wiped sweat off his face with the bar rag. “Because when Hammersmith’s men get here, there’s likely to be shooting. A lot of it.”
“Shooting about what?”
“Dan Hammersmith owns the Hammer Ranch south of here. He’s been losing stock, and he blames Pepé Flores. Flores owns the cantina across the road. He’s holed up in there now with half a dozen Mex gunmen. When Hammersmith and his crew get here, there’s going to be a battle.
Everybody in town knows what’s coming. That’s why they’re all hunkered down, waiting until it’s over. I’m going in my back room, where I’ve got some crates stacked up to stop any stray bullets that come this way.”
“Is Flores actually behind the rustling?”
“I don’t know. Hammersmith thinks he is, and that’s all that matters.”
The stranger thought it over, and nodded. “I still want that beer.”
“You’re not leaving?” the bartender asked, his eyes wide with surprise.
“Not until I’ve had that beer, Mister . . . are you Mahoney?”
“Aye. William Mahoney, his own self.”
“Then draw another beer for me, Mr. Mahoney, and you can go get behind your crates.” Mahoney stared at him for a long moment, then muttered, “’Tis a madman you are.”
The stranger smiled. “No. Just thirsty.”
Mahoney grabbed a mug from the backbar
and filled it. He pushed it across the hardwood toward the stranger.
“There. It’s on the house this time, since I dropped the first one. And whatever happens . . . it’s on your head, mister.”
He turned, scurried to the end of the bar, and disappeared through a narrow door.
The stranger picked up the mug and took a long swallow of the beer. Mahoney was right. It wasn’t the least bit cold, but it was wet and washed away the trail dust, and it wasn’t too bitter. The stranger sighed in satisfaction as he set the mug back on the bar.
He turned and walked to the door, pushed the batwings aside and stepped onto the porch. The dust cloud was a lot closer to the settlement. Close enough he could hear the pounding hoofbeats of the horses.
Riders appeared at the cloud’s base, black dots at first and then recognizable as men on horseback. They swept into the settlement and reined their mounts to a halt at the point where the trail turned into a street. The skidding stop kicked up more dust, and since there was barely any breeze, it hung over the street, drifting slowly past the saloon.
The stranger took off his hat, revealing a thatch of sandy hair, and waved some of the dust away as it tried to settle on him.
As the air gradually cleared, he saw that ten men had ridden into town, all of them wearing range clothes and sporting guns in tied-down holsters. They fancied themselves Coltmen, whether they actually were or not.
One man was a little better dressed than the others, so the stranger pegged him as Dan Hammersmith, the rancher whose herd had been the victim of rustlers.
Hammersmith cast a frowning glance at the stranger, who had replaced his hat and stood with a hip braced against one of the posts supporting the awning over the porch. Hammersmith said something to the rider beside him, who shook his head. The second man was probably indicating he had no idea who the tall stranger was.
Hammersmith jerked a hand in a curt gesture. The stranger’s identity clearly didn’t matter to him. He hitched his horse into motion and started leading his men along the street toward the cantina.
“Hold on a minute,” the stranger called as he straightened from his casual pose and stepped down from the saloon’s porch.
Instantly, some of the cowboys put their hands on their guns. The stranger ignored them as he walked toward Hammersmith. He didn’t figure they would draw and fire without their boss giving the order.
“What the hell do you want, mister?” the leader snapped. “This ain’t a good time to be askin’ for a job, if that’s what you’re doin’.”
The stranger shook his head. “I’m not interested in work. Are you Hammersmith?”
“That’s right. What’s it to you?”
“I hear you’ve got a grudge against the fella who owns the cantina down yonder.”
“That’s right. What business is it of yours? Are you friends with that greaser thief Flores?”
“Never met the man,” the stranger said. “Never even seen him, just like I never saw you until now. Whatever problems you have, I’m not part of them.”
Hammersmith scowled. “The biggest problem I have right now is you’re interferin’ with what we’ve got to do. We’re about to clean out that rat’s nest, and if you don’t like it, you can go to hell!”
Mutters of agreement came from his men.
“I don’t care what you do,” the stranger said. “But you see that horse over there?” He pointed to the dun standing at the hitch rack in front of Mahoney’s with his head drooping in weariness.
“What about it?” Hammersmith demanded.
“That’s my horse, and he’s tired and hot. He needs some water and the chance to rest for a while before I ride out again. But if you and those men holed up in the cantina start shooting at each other, my horse is liable to get hit by a stray bullet.”
“Well, then, get him off the damned street!” Hammersmith bellowed.
The stranger shook his head. “He’s fine where he is. I’ll be leaving in an hour or so. Flores and his men will still be waiting for you in the cantina then.”
The rancher’s eyes widened in amazement. “You want us to wait and have our showdown after you’re gone, just so your horse won’t get shot?”
“It seems like a reasonable request to me,” the stranger said.
With his face turning purple with rage, Hammersmith demanded at the top of his lungs, “Just who in blazes do you think you are?”
“They call me Kid Morgan.”