Gun Devils of the Rio Grande (Outlaw Ranger Book 5), страница 1
OUTLAW RANGER #5
GUN DEVILS OF THE RIO GRANDE
Outlaw Ranger #5: Gun Devils of the Rio Grande by James Reasoner
Copyright© 2016 James Reasoner
by James Reasoner
Cover Design Livia Reasoner
Rough Edges Press
Hell came to Santa Rosalia while the village slept. The raiders charged in on horseback, shouting and shooting, when the eastern sky had barely begun to show streaks of red and gold. Men hurried out of their jacals to see what was going on and were shot down, swiftly and brutally. Their bullet-riddled bodies flopped in the dust and their women ran to them, falling to their knees, weeping and wailing.
The screams grew louder as the raiders dismounted and jerked the women away from their slain loved ones—but only the women young and pretty enough. Then the killers strode into the jacals to search for more women and girls. They kicked aside the boys who put up a fight. The old women who tried to protect their daughters and granddaughters and nieces were gunned down just as the village’s men had been.
In the end, the only ones left living in Santa Rosalia were the very young, the very old, the infirm, and the women so ugly no man would ever want them. And since most women grew beautiful when a man guzzled down enough tequila, there were very few of those.
The raiders found a number of carts in the village, normally used in the farming that gave these people their livelihood. They forced the prisoners into those carts, where they huddled together in their nightclothes, stunned and terrified. Then the men brought donkeys from their pens and hitched them to the carts. The crude vehicles lurched into motion and rolled northwest from Santa Rosalia, following the course of the river that divided Mexico from Texas.
Some of the weeping women looked across the river at the level, brush-dotted terrain. The Tejanos, many of them anyway, were regarded as devils who liked nothing better than to kill Mexicans. But right now, these prisoners would have welcomed the sight of a band of bloody-handed Texans charging across the Rio Grande to kill their captors.
No help waited for them, in Texas or elsewhere. The carts rolled slowly past several men who sat on their horses in the growing light and studied the prisoners. Martin Larrizo’s mount stood slightly ahead of the other two. His lieutenants flanked him. He nodded slowly, satisfied with what he saw.
He lifted a hand and pointed at one of the young women. “That one.”
Hector Gonsalvo spurred forward and leaned down toward the prisoners. The women cringed from him but couldn’t get away. Gonsalvo looped a long, ape-like arm around the captive Larrizo had pointed out and dragged her from the cart as she screamed and punched futilely at him. He rode with her back toward Larrizo, then reined in and dropped her on the ground next to his horse.
He held on tight to her nightdress, though, so it ripped away from her as she fell, leaving her slender body nude. She hunkered on the ground, doubling over in an attempt to hide her nakedness.
Larrizo, tall in the saddle, barrel-chested, with a heavy-jawed face and thick mustache, nodded to Gonsalvo. The lieutenant dismounted, wrapped sausage-like fingers in the girl’s long black hair, and jerked her to her feet, putting her body on blatant display. Larrizo nodded.
“This one is mine,” he said. “No one touches her.” He lifted his voice and addressed all his men. “No one touches any of them until we know what value they are to us.” He looked at Gonsalvo again. “Bring her, Hector.”
Gonsalvo lifted the young woman, who struggled for a second before going limp, as if all her resistance, all her hope, had run out of her like water. He placed her on Larrizo’s horse in front of the leader, who looped his left arm around her waist and jerked the reins with his right hand to turn the big black horse. The rowels of his spurs raked the animal’s flanks and it leaped forward into a gallop.
Martin Larrizo rode like the wind away from the conquered village with his prize firmly in his grasp.
But this was just the beginning, and a much greater prize waited out there for him to seize it.
All of Mexico.
Braddock sat in the opulent bar of the Camino Real Hotel in El Paso and nursed a beer. His surroundings—gleaming hardwood, polished brass, sparkling crystal—were a far cry from what he was accustomed to in his simple adobe cabin in Esperanza, the Mexican village downriver that had become his home.
The Camino Real boasted all sorts of guests. Mexican grandees and hacendados, Texas cattlemen, railroad tycoons, successful businessmen of all stripes...and their ladies, gowned and coiffed and perfumed, possessed of all the loveliness money could buy. It wasn’t exactly the sort of place where a disgraced former lawman would spend an evening. A man wanted by the authorities on this side of the river.
An outlaw Ranger.
Braddock was tall, lean, deeply tanned, with a scar running up the side of his face into his sandy hair. He wore a brown suit that was nothing fancy, especially compared to the garb of the bar’s other patrons but still the best outfit he owned. A cream-colored Stetson with a tightly curled brim sat on the table.
Most folks didn’t parade around with guns on their hips anymore, not in the early days of this new, modern century, so Braddock had left his shell belt and Colt at the boarding house where he had rented a room. He had an over/under .41 caliber derringer tucked in his waistband just above the watch pocket where he carried the badge he had once worn as a member of the Texas Rangers, the West’s most famous outlaw hunters.
He might not have a legal right to that vaunted emblem anymore, but it never left his possession. A bullet had punched a hole right in the center of the badge.
He took another sip of the beer and looked around the room, studying the faces of the people without being too obvious about it. He had come here to meet someone, but he didn’t know the man by sight.
A letter for Braddock had made its way to Esperanza, where mail delivery was an uncertain thing to begin with. It was no real secret Braddock lived in the village, but he didn’t think too many people north of the border knew about it.
A man named E.J. Caldwell had sent the letter, which asked that Braddock meet him at the Camino Real in El Paso to discuss a business arrangement. Also inside the envelope, Braddock found a fifty dollar greenback.
Braddock could have stuck the bill in his pocket, thrown away the letter, and forgotten the whole thing. It would have been easy enough to do, and he’d considered it.
But his friend the padre, who was there when Braddock read the letter, had smiled and said, “You are curious, my friend. You want to know who this man is, how he knows about you...and what he wants you to do.”
“Curiosity’s not a sin, is it?”
“No. But it can be a temptation that leads one into sin.”
“You can’t know where a trail goes unless you follow it,” Braddock had said, and the next morning he had gathered a few supplies, saddled his dun horse, and ridden toward El Paso after telling the priest goodbye and adding, “I’ll be back.”
“I pray to El Señor Dios it is so.”
Braddock left the fifty bucks with the padre. If he didn’t come back, the money might as well stay where it could do some good. Braddock had only a few needs: food, shelter, ammunition.
He couldn’t afford to stay at the Camino Real, so he found more suitable accommodations. Then he’d shaken out his suit, brushed his hat, stuck the derringer in his waistband, and come here to meet Mr. E.J. Caldwell.
Who might just be the stocky, florid-faced gent with curling mustache
He had a drink in one hand and a derby in the other. Braddock kept an eye on the derby, which might have a gun hidden in it, although such a crude subterfuge in a room as fancy as this seemed out of place. The man stopped on the other side of the table and said, “Mr. Braddock? G.W. Braddock?”
“Who’s asking the question?”
“E.J. Caldwell, sir. Would you object if I sat down?”
“That depends. How much did you pay for this meeting?”
The man smiled and said, “Ah, testing my bona fides. The amount in question is fifty simoleons, my friend.”
Braddock didn’t like it when people he didn’t know took him for their friend, but he let it pass. He gestured with his left hand for Caldwell to sit down. His right hand lay easily in his lap, handy to the derringer.
Caldwell set the glass of whiskey and the derby on the table and took a seat. “I’m very happy you saw fit to meet me,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly when you’d arrive, so I’ve been checking here every evening for a week.”
“You knew what I look like?”
“I had an excellent description of you.”
And where had he gotten that description, Braddock wondered. Off a reward poster? He knew charges had been levied against him, and the Rangers, at least some of them, would like to see him in custody, but he didn’t know if they had circulated posters on him. He could have asked Caldwell and pressed for an answer, he supposed, but he wasn’t sure it was worth the trouble just yet.
Instead he asked, “What can I do for you, Mr. Caldwell?”
“First of all, you should understand the fifty dollars was to pay for your time and trouble coming up here.”
Braddock smiled faintly. “That’s sort of what I figured.”
“I have a business proposition for you, and if you take the job, there’ll be further remuneration. A goodly amount, in fact.”
Caldwell put out a fat-fingered hand and wobbled it a little. “That’s a matter for negotiation.”
Something bristled inside Braddock. He wasn’t a hired gun. He had been a lawman, and when he’d lost his badge not through any fault of his own but through corrupt political shenanigans, he had continued bringing owlhoots to justice, even though that put him on the wrong side of the law as far as some were concerned.
The idea of sitting here and haggling with this man put a bitter taste in his mouth. Had he really come to this? To hell with it. He didn’t even care what the job was anymore. He drank the rest of the beer and set the empty glass on the table between them.
Caldwell’s bushy eyebrows rose in surprise. “Excuse me?”
“I said forget it. I don’t want the job. I don’t care what it pays. I’m not a hired gun.”
“Please, Mr. Braddock, don’t be hasty. Perhaps I didn’t make it clear how urgent this matter is.”
“It’s not urgent to me,” Braddock said. He scraped his chair back and started to stand up.
“I’ve offended you. That wasn’t my intention. I know you’re not a gunman for hire. You’re a Texas Ranger.”
That made Braddock pause and settle back in his chair. His history wasn’t that hard to look up. There had even been a few newspaper stories written about him, although he wasn’t what anybody would call a notorious character.
Caldwell leaned forward and went on, “It really is vital that I talk to you and explain the whole situation, but not here.”
That raised Braddock’s hackles. “Where, then?”
“I have a room upstairs.”
Well, that had trap written all over it. Could Caldwell be working for Captain Hughes? If he went up to the man’s room, would he find it full of Rangers waiting to clap him in irons and haul him off to jail? The Rangers had gone to elaborate lengths to catch outlaws in the past. He wasn’t sure they actually wanted him that badly, but on the other hand he sort of gave the organization a bad name by tackling problems they couldn’t take on in their currently hamstrung operation.
Anyway, there was that curiosity again, the temptation the padre had warned him about.
On still one more hand, Braddock was pretty sure he was going to hell no matter what he did, so why not give in? It might just get him there quicker.
“All right,” he said, reaching for his hat. “Let’s go.”
Caldwell looked a little surprised again, as if he hadn’t really expected Braddock to agree this quickly. But he picked up his derby—turning it so Braddock could see no gun was hidden in it, although Braddock figured such a revelation wasn’t the man’s intention—and said, “Thank you. I appreciate you indulging me.”
The Camino Real had an elevator, the first in this whole part of the country. Braddock didn’t like it much as the little cage rattled and shook and lifted them to the hotel’s third floor. Like most things about an increasingly modern world, it just didn’t seem right to him. He didn’t show that on his face, though, as he rode up with Caldwell.
“My suite is right down here,” the man said as they walked along a hallway with a thick carpet runner on the floor. Gilt wallpaper covered the corridor’s walls, and fancy sconces held gas lamps that hissed faintly.
Caldwell paused in front of a door and took a key out of his pocket. He unlocked it, turned the knob, pushed the door open an inch or so, glanced over his shoulder to smile at Braddock.
Braddock planted his left hand in the middle of Caldwell’s back and shoved hard. As Caldwell exclaimed in alarm and crashed into the door, Braddock palmed out the derringer. Caldwell stumbled across the room, lost his balance, and planted himself face first. Luckily for him he landed on a well-upholstered divan. He rolled off it and half-sat, half-lay in the floor looking stunned. His derby had fallen off.
Braddock didn’t see anybody else, but somewhere in the room a woman laughed and said, “Such a dramatic entrance wasn’t really necessary, Mr. Braddock, but please, come in.”
Braddock’s hand tightened on the derringer. He had expected he might find trouble up here, but not a woman.
Of course, those two things often went together.
When he didn’t move, the unseen woman went on, “This isn’t a trap, I assure you, although I admit, I did get you up here on false pretenses. A little anyway.”
The man sitting on the floor had recovered enough from his surprise to flush with anger. He looked to his left, glared, and said, “You didn’t pay me enough to be manhandled like that, lady. I don’t care how pretty you are.”
That was intriguing. Braddock hadn’t been with a woman in quite a while, but he was no more immune to their charms than any other man. The comment just added to his curiosity.
A twenty dollar gold piece sailed toward the man, bounced off his chest, and landed on the floor beside him. The man still glared, but he picked up the coin.
“There’s a bonus,” the woman said. “You can get out now, since you’ve outlived your usefulness. I should have known it was better just to be honest and forthright.”
The man scrambled to his feet, made some huffing noises, and left the room, stepping quickly to the side as soon as he came through the door so he could give Braddock a wide berth. He stomped off down the hall, glancing back in a mixture of anger and nervousness, as if worried Braddock might come after him.
For the most part, Braddock had already forgotten about the man. He focused his attention on the woman inside the room, who said without moving into view, “Well? Are you coming in or not?”
Braddock stepped across the threshold and swung to his right, toeing the door back farther so he could see the woman. He pointed the derringer at her. She didn’t flinch.
She looked like she didn’t flinch from much. She leveled cool and intelligent blue eyes at him. Blond hair put up in a stylish bun topped an attractive face. The dark blue dr
“You’d be Miss E.J. Caldwell, I reckon,” Braddock said.
“Elizabeth Jane Caldwell, yes. I use the initials professionally.”
“What sort of profession are we talking about that requires a woman to use her initials?”
She frowned and said, “Don’t be crude, Mr. Braddock. It doesn’t become you.” She gestured toward a silver tray with a pot and a couple of china cups on it. “Coffee? Of course, you’d have to put up that gun in order to drink it.”
“If you’ll pour, I can manage one-handed, thanks.”
She burst out in a laugh. “Oh, come on. Surely you don’t think I’m that much of a threat. What am I going to do, bushwhack you?” She moved her hands to indicate her body. “I’m not exactly toting a six-shooter.”
“Yeah, well, a fella never knows. But the way you throw money around, I suppose you’ve earned a little indulgence.”
He slipped the derringer back inside his waistband.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ve had guns pointed at me before. It’s never a pleasant experience.”
“I could say the same thing. Only the ones pointed at me usually go off.”
“I’ve had that happen, too,” she said as she poured coffee in the china cups.
“Is that so? You don’t look like the sort of lady who winds up in gunfights.”
“I wind up all sorts of places you wouldn’t expect me to be.”
She handed Braddock one of the cups. He sipped the coffee, found it to be as good as you’d expect in a place like the Camino Real. He said, “This drawing room banter is amusing as all hell, but I’d just as soon get down to business.”
“I agree. Have a seat. Take off your hat.”
Braddock looked around. The room had a couple of plushly upholstered wing chairs in it, to go along with the divan. All of them would be difficult to get up from in a hurry if a man needed to. A straight-backed wooden chair sat at a writing desk. He picked it up, swung it around, and straddled it. He put his hat on the floor beside him.