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The Black Trail
 

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The Black Trail


  Issuing classic fiction from Yesterday and Today!

  The Apache began to turn, a smile of contempt on his face.

  He died not even certain about what he’d seen. The last image imprinted on his sight was so blurred and so unbelievable that he doubted himself. There was the white man, holding something. A gun? Then there was a flash and a burst of smoke. He even heard the crash of the explosion.

  Then he was dead.

  The first barrel of the Purdey spat out its load of ten-gauge shot at less than twelve feet range. The lead ripping into the Apache’s head and shoulders, flaying the skin from his face. Pulping both eyes in their sockets. Smashing the teeth in the gums through torn lips. Blasting him back off his feet to lie near the edge of the cliff, feet kicking and fingers scrabbling in the dust as the life poured away from him.

  THE BLACK TRAIL

  CROW 4:

  By James W. Marvin

  First Published by Corgi Books in 1980

  Copyright © 1980 by James W. Marvin

  Published by Piccadilly Publishing at Smashwords: March 2013

  Names, characters and incidents in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each reader. If you’re reading the book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  Cover image © 2013 by Westworld Designs

  This is a Piccadilly Publishing Book

  Published by Arrangement with the Elizabeth James.

  This is for a man called Nolan, his wife and his sons. I surely wish I could figure out how he manages to keep on gettin’ there firstest with the moistest

  Titles in the Crow Series so far …

  1.THE RED HILLS

  2. WORSE THAN DEATH

  3. TEARS OF BLOOD

  All available in eBook format

  Chapter One

  ‘Hotter’n the hobs of Hell, ain’t it, Mister?’ The old man squinted up at the great ball of bright gold that hung over his head, washing Abilene, Kansas, in its baking summer heat.

  The thermometer on the wall outside Dick Pine’s drugstore had stuck the previous day, clean on one hundred degrees. And it seemed even hotter than that.

  The shadow of the tall stranger standing by the old-timer’s rocking chair on the porch lay in the dust as black and sharp as if it had been cut there with an open razor.

  ‘I surely ain’t never known a man with such a damned curiosity about the old times, Mister. They’re past over. Not even worth forgetting, some of ‘em. Folks now live kind of easy, I guess. Maybe that’s why they want to know about what it was like.’

  The stranger nodded, knowing from past experience that it was all the encouragement that the old man needed to open up the gates and let out the herd of memories corralled inside his head.

  Weren’t easy,’ He threw back his head and cackled his laughter, showing a mouth that looked like a deserted city block, the few remaining teeth blackened and leaning against each other as if they needed the support. ‘Damned hard, and that’s the truth. Never knew whether you’d be fightin’ off buzzards for some scraps of stinkin’ meat from a month-dead buffalo. Or lappin’ up water from a muddied hoof-print.’

  The stranger came down from New York every few months to talk to the old gunfighter. One of the last of the breed who still remembered how it had been to kneel behind your dead horse, levering the last cartridge into the breech of the Winchester, peering through the dust and the black powder smoke at the Apaches whooping in towards you out of the sun. The days were gone, but there were still plenty of folks liked to hear of them. Even now, with the twentieth century well on its way, and flying machines dotting the skies over Kansas, people liked to read about how it used to be. Back in the sixties and seventies and eighties.

  Out West where the frontier was a line you couldn’t see, scratched between you and a horizon you might never get to cross.

  The old tales still stirred the blood. Of Jesse and Billy and Wes. Of Jed Herne and the man they just called ‘Edge’. Jack Ryker and the big Mimbrenos Apache, Cuchillo Oro.

  And Crow.

  ‘Crow? Yeah, it’s always him, ain’t it? I guess I told you last time about when he was up on the Bozeman Trail and the Little Big Horn? I did? And how he was the only white man saw Autie Custer and his boys ride grinnin’ into the biggest ambush this country’s ever seen? I did, huh?’

  ‘Strangest kind of guy you…longish hair, about down to…to here,’ his nicotine-stained fingers brushing the scrawny shoulders. ‘Eyes like you never seen, Mister, and I ain’t joshin’ none. Set deep in caves o’bone. Nearest to black you could imagine, but kind of smoldering’ with a red glow. Like a campfire seen far off at night. Know what I mean?’

  The stranger nodded again, leaning against the front of the house, fishing in the pocket of his Eastern suit for a stogie. Biting the end off it and spitting it out in the street. Lighting up and waiting for the memories to carry on flowing.

  Wouldn’t have another of them cigars? Kind of partial to ‘em. Thank you, Mister. Good smoke and a glass of whiskey now and again…’ waiting for the stranger to take the hint Reaching for his wallet and peeling off a couple of tens. Tucking them in the top pocket of the old man’s faded overalls. ‘Obliged. Crow never took to drinkin’ that much. Once heard him say that he didn’t see the reasonin’ of putting a road agent in your mouth and lettin’ him steal away your brains. Had a lot of sayings like that.’

  There was a pause while the two men watched a pretty girl of around sixteen cross the road, her hips swinging as she stepped out.

  ‘Get to my age, Mister, and there’s pleasure in lookin’. All the goddamned pleasure there is! Remembering what it was like. I had my times of sportin’. I did, Mister, and that’s the truth. Why, there was a little high-yeller girl down in Baton Rouge. I was busted flat and headin’ for the train and I took up with her. Back in about ninety-two or three. Maybe earlier. Pretty as al…Crow had a way with women. Not that he worked on it. Just came natural. I figured they liked the danger about him. Whore from out Texas said she could see death on his shoulder and that helped her kind of enjoy it more. Funny animals, women. He used them and then forgot them. Never took up with one regular, as I recall. Women was trouble.’

  The old man’s voice was becoming quieter and the stranger hooked his foot under a cane chair and eased himself into it, alongside the door, where he could hear better.

  ‘I tell you about the run-in with that wagon-train of cavalry women? Bushwacked by Shoshone in the fall of seventy-six. Damned near…but I recall tellin’ you this.’

  A tall, skinny black swaggered past, cooling himself with a folded paper fan, bearing the name of a local funeral parlor. The old-timer snorted his disgust at the sight, clearing his throat and spitting across the sidewalk, narrowly missing the polished shoes of the Negro. Who paused for a moment and stared at the couple of white men, watching them from under hooded lids. Suddenly grinning and giving them a jaunty wave of a malacca cane.

  ‘Damned son of a bitchin’ uppity nigra,’ sighed the old man as the black vanished down the street, whistling to himself. ‘They come here and think that they can just about walk around and see us while they…’ his mind got cluttered and the words just trailed away into silence. The stranger prompted him again to talk about Crow.

  ‘Crow was a bastard with nigras.’ He laughed, throwing his head back again,
the chair creaking on the splintered boards. ‘Fact o’ the matter is, Mister…Crow was a regular hundred cents in the dollar bastard with just about everyone. Black or white. Old or young. Rich or poor. Came the same to Crow. Still...’ he wiped the spittle from his chin, looking at it, then rubbing his hand against the leg of his pants. ‘What was I sayin’? Don’t tell me. I can…Yeah. Guess most of the folks as died when his shadow crossed them kind of deserved it. World was a mite cleaner when that good old boy passed along by.’

  There was a long silence stretched out between the two men. The stranger waited. Patience was something that he’d learned young and it came in useful dealing with the retired gunfighter. Though the chatter came in fitful bursts, there was enough gold there to make the mining worth the while. There were a lot of names in the histories of the old West but Crow somehow flitted by in the darkness. There were references to him, but mighty few facts. Crow hadn’t been a man that anyone could pin down.

  There were descriptions of him. Tall. Skinny and lean as whipcord. Dressed in black with the splash of color at the neck. The old yellow cavalry bandana. Riding a big black stallion that didn’t have a name. And his guns. The stranger knew them off by heart.

  An 1868, twin-barreled shotgun. English Purdey with a hand-engraved walnut stock. Sawn down until the barrels were just four inches long. Worn on the right hip in a big, deep holster. Balanced by a Peacemaker in the back of his belt. Winchester bucketed at the saddle. The Seventy-three. The Easterner had learned so much about Crow that he almost felt he could see him. See the cut-down 1860 brass-hilted saber on the left hip. Honed to a razor edge, the blade just two and a half feet in length. Crow never even bothered to take the golden braid off the pommel of the sword.

  ‘Always told women what they wanted to hear,’ said the old man suddenly, breaking the quiet. It was impossible to know what by-ways his mind had been wandering down to come up with that thought.

  He took a long draw on the dark cigar, the end glowing red in the sunlight. ‘Once said that he’d finally discovered what it was that the women truly wanted from men. Said he was told it by a man he’d shot out near the Mex border, Man called Limey Howell. New Englander, as I recall it Crow cut him in half with the scattergun and Howell whispered it Kind of dying words. Said that what women wanted was whatever a man happened to be fresh out of.’

  The thought amused the old-timer and he laughed again, breaking into a coughing fit that left his eyes streaming and his mouth sagging. ‘Son of a bitch,’ he croaked. ‘Son of a blasted bitch! Crow and women. Had bad times with ‘em’ too. Sure did. I recall in Arizona, when some banker’s wife…or the mayor…I don’t rightly…but she’d been took. I spoke of that? Thought I had.’

  ‘Guess you want to hear about something different, don’t you, Mister? Mighty obliged for the spendin’ money you give me. Comes in handy for an old man all alone. Pays for the rent of that one-roomed cell I live in. If you call it livin’! Pushin’ a broom and... that’s not what you want to know.’

  All of a sudden the eyes had lost their mistiness. The stranger spotted the movement and sat forward. Knowing from past experience that this was going to be it. There would be a new tale for him.

  ‘Seeing that nigra put me in mind of it Back in Arizona, just after that kidnapping I told you about Summer of seventy-seven, it must have been. Hotter ’n Hell. Sun bounced off the stones and fried your brains inside your skull. Crow and the nigra.’

  It sounded interesting to the stranger.

  ‘Not like an ordinary nigra. This one wasn’t like the rest of them black trash. Hell, no! Man of means, this black bastard. Near as tall as Crow. I seen him. Come from Africa. Not a slave. Not a runner, neither. Free man, they said.’

  The idea seemed strange and he sat silent, thinking back on it. ‘Yeah. Free. Though, I recall what Crow once said about bein’ free. He said that it was bein’ able to pick who you killed and why you killed ‘em.’

  The stranger reached for another cigar and lit it, watching the smoke drift across the porch and out into the heat of the Abilene day.

  Chapter Two

  Crow was tired. Hot and tired. Trail dust layered his face, streaked with sweat and his black shirt clung to him. The canteen on the saddle rattled and bounced as the stallion walked on across the sand, empty and dry. It had been empty for better than a day now.

  Though there wasn’t a whole lot known about Crow’s early life, there were consistent stories that he’d spent time with Indians. Either from choice or because they’d taken him as a child. Since he never ever talked about the days that had gone, nobody knew for sure.

  What was certain was that Crow knew more than most whites about Indians. About their ways of living. And about how to survive in the American South-west in high summer, in one of the most hostile environments on God’s earth. He also knew Crazy Horse, the Oglala war leader. And there were those who talked about his meeting Geronimo and Cochise and Cuchillo Oro. With Crow it was hard to separate the lies from the truths. The fantasies and the half-truths.

  Since being forced out of the Third Cavalry back in the previous spring. Crow had been wandering. Making whatever kind of a living he could by selling his gun. And the skill that went with it. Now he was riding in towards a settlement in Arizona Territory, after what might be a job. There’d been word around the border that a lot of silver was disappearing from payrolls around the township of Crossworld Springs. A few houses and a saloon at a fork in a trail where there was the only water for nearly sixty miles.

  Which meant that all the wagons and stages went that way. Most of them got through. Some of them didn’t. Some of them were taken by white men and some by the local Apaches. The white men were supposed to be the main thieves. A gang of renegades led by an Irish-German called Sean Neumann. Around a half dozen of them, was what the flyer had said. Crow had seen it in the office of a sheriff further north.

  The empty canteen was bad news. Crow was still a half day off from Crossworld Springs and the previous water he’d aimed for had been poisoned. The slumped bones around the dusty edge told their own grim tale. Two horses and two men. Buzzards hadn’t left enough for Crow to be sure if they had been whites or Indians, but the horses had been shod, and that usually meant whites. And there was no clue about who had poisoned the water. Most times it was whites played that game, hoping to cut hunting parties of Apaches off from their usual camps where they could more easily be tracked down and butchered.

  The South-west wasn’t the healthiest place in the country to be. A man riding in desert country where the shade temperature would reach about a hundred and twenty - if there was any shade - loses water from his body at a frightening rate. And because of the sun it’s not obvious. The sweat evaporates the moment it hits the surface of the skin. The skin dries up and the body starts to overheat, losing moisture even more quickly. It’s a vicious spiral downwards with only one ending, if you don’t know about it and aren’t able to do anything about it.

  But Crow knew everything that there was to know about survival. He’d been travelling by night as much as possible, shepherding his strength and that of the stallion. Slipping from the saddle to walk alongside the animal, shoulders hunched. Keeping as much of himself covered against the heat as he could. During the two long days he’d found a rocky outcrop and scratched himself a hollow in the dry earth with the point of his cut-down saber, lying and resting to conserve as much of his body liquid as he was able. Letting the horse fend for itself. Keeping it tied to a rock so that it couldn’t wander off and make him have to waste his energy going after it

  Crow had learned from an old Iroquois shaman the ability to slide into a kind of waking sleep. Lying perfectly still, eyes closed, his breathing as shallow as a dying man. Letting the body just tick over gently, his mind easy.

  Crossworld Springs was not that far away. He knew he’d make it.

  The township shimmered through the early morning haze as he walked the stallion slowly on. The buildings black rec
tangles, each one surrounded by a halo of golden light against the rising sun far off to the east over the desert.

  Although it was full early, Crow was surprised to see a small crowd gathered around the saloon, blocking off something that lay on the elevated sidewalk against the front wall of the frame building. There were around fifteen to twenty men and three or four women there, oblivious to the approach of the stranger. Crow noticed that there was a buckboard drawn up in the street by the saloon, and even at that distance he could see that the tail was coated and smeared with a dark liquid, almost black in the dawn’s stark light. There was only one liquid that looked like that The blood-slobbered wagon was such a potent image of death that Crow could almost smell it

  He wondered what it could be that had emptied Cross-world Springs at such an hour. As he heeled the dust-coated stallion forwards, entering what he guessed they called the main street, Crow noticed that there were saloon girls among the women. For them to be up before noon it had to be some killing.

  At last someone noticed him. A fat, grey-haired man who had been hopping about at the back as he tried to peer over the shoulders of the front row of spectators. There had been a humming and buzzing of conversation, and that stopped as he spread the word. In the stillness Crow could only hear the harsh breathing of his horse, and the clip-clopping of the hooves through the dry earth of the trail. The jingle of the harness and then a whinny from one of the pair of animals in front of the saloon.

  Crow reined in to a halt about fifteen paces off from the crowd. Sitting easily in the saddle, the thirst and tiredness forgotten now that he was at journey’s end. Pushing back the black hat from over his eyes and running his fingers around the inside of the yellow bandana to brush away the sand.

  There was a sign outside the saloon, weathered and faded, that said: ‘Promised Land’. Below it was a smaller board. ‘Hospitality and service at reasonable prices.’ And under that someone had scrawled in black paint, fresher than the rest: ‘Straw free.’

 
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