Read Badlanders Online

Authors: David Robbins

Badlanders

WELCOME TO THE BADLANDS.

“Wait,” Alexander said. “You're saying this Jericho is a killer?”

“At least five times over, probably more.”

“And I'm to have him in my employ?”

“No Jericho, no Neal Bonner, and we need Mr. Bonner. And you need Jericho.”

“That's ridiculous.”

“Hear me out.” Wells took a puff and blew a smoke ring. “You asked about the dangers. I'm enlightening you. One of them has to do with the character of the men out there, or the lack thereof. You see, Mr. Jessup, the West is home to many bad men. Gunmen, confidence men, cheats, cardsharps, thieves of every stripe, and, more to the point, rustlers. They're much more common than you can possibly imagine, and they are why you need a man like Jericho on your payroll.”

Also by David Robbins

Thunder Valley

Blood Feud

Ride to Valor

Town Tamers

SIGNET

Published by the Penguin Group

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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC

Copyright © David Robbins, 2014

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA

ISBN 978-0-698-15304-2

PUBLISHER
'
S
NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

Contents

Welcome to the Badlands

Also by David Robbins

Title page

Copyright page

Dedication

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Dedicated to Judy, Joshua, and
Shane

1

A
pale moon had just risen into the darkening sky when the three men rode into Whiskey Flats.

The single dusty street was flanked by a couple of log cabins, several shacks, and the only building that showed any light. A crudely painted sign announced it was the Three Aces. Under it was the claim that
DRINKS ARE CHEAP
and under that the news that the saloon boasted
THE ONLY DOXIE BETWE
EN HERE AND UTAH
. Several horses were tied at the hitch rail, and a cat was licking itself under the overhang.

The three riders drew rein and looked at the sign.

“Gentlemen, I believe we've found civilization at last,” declared the shortest, grinning. He had a florid face and wide whiskers, and wore a bowler, a suit, and Hessian boots. “Which one of you wants to go first with the doxie?”

The other two were as different from the short man as the pale moon was from the sun. Both were big and broad-shouldered. Both had the weathered aspect of men who spent a lot of time outdoors. And both wore six-shooters, while the man in the bowler did not. There their similarities ended.

“I reckon I'll pass,” said the one with curly sandy hair. He had brown eyes and a jaw like an anvil. A Stetson that had seen a lot of use crowned his head. His clothes were those of a typical cowhand and had seen as much use as his hat. His revolver was an over-the-counter Colt, as plain as the man himself.

A savvy onlooker wouldn't peg the last rider as a cowboy, although he did work cattle. His hair was long and straight and black as pitch. His eyes were a startling blue. His hat was black, his shirt the same, his pants gray. A savvy onlooker would also notice that there was nothing plain about his six-gun. A nickel-plated Colt with pearl grips, it nestled high and slightly forward on his right hip. His right hand was never far from his holster.

The man in the bowler chuckled. “How can you let an opportunity like this go by?” he teased the sandy-haired man. “A doxie, by heaven.”

“You're plumb amusin', Mr. Wells,” the sandy-haired cowboy said in a tone that suggested Wells wasn't.

“And you, Mr. Bonner, are much too serious,” Wells said. “You need to learn to see the humor in things.”

“Do I, now?”

“Indeed.” Wells motioned expansively at the saloon and the cabins and shacks and the benighted wilds beyond. “Think of where we are. In the middle of the Badlands. Hundreds of miles from anywhere, and we find an outpost of humanity advertising the wares of a wanton woman as if she were the Holy Grail of life.”

“How you talk, Mr. Wells.”

Wells laughed. “I'm a cynic, I'm afraid. Which is why the incongruities of life delight me so.”

“The what?”

“Never mind, Neal.” Wells dismounted with the awkward form of someone not accustomed to going about on horseback. Looping the reins, he smacked at his clothes, raising puffs of dust.

Neal Bonner alighted with the fluid ease of a true horseman. Glancing at their black-haired companion
with the pearl-handled Colt, he said, “Are you fixin' to stay out here and admire the stars or would you care to join us?”

The black-haired man's thin lips quirked, and he swung down. His movements had a pantherish quality, with no wasted movement. He was down, his reins tied off, and his thumbs hooked in his gun belt, all seemingly in the same motion.

Wells had finished smacking and turned. “Let me do the talking. That's why they sent me, after all. But interject where you feel necessary.” He glanced at the black-haired man. “As for you. Mr. Jericho, you hardly ever speak anyway, so that won't be an issue with you.”

“No mister,” Jericho said.

About to go in, Wells paused. “Sorry?”

“It's just ‘Jericho.' I told you before.”

“And you think I'm peculiar?” Wells said to Neal. Chuckling, he strode to the batwings.

Neal grinned at Jericho. “Easterners.”

“For a rooster, he's tolerable,” Jericho said.

Inside the saloon, everyone had stopped what they were doing to stare at Wells. At the bar were two older men in grimy clothes with the blurry eyes of heavy drinkers. They smiled in a friendly manner.

There was nothing friendly about the four poker players at a corner table. They bore the stamp of hard cases, their flinty eyes regarding the newcomer with predatory interest.

Wells stepped to where a balding bartender was stacking shot glasses into a pyramid. “How do you do, sir? My name is Franklyn Wells. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

The bartender was carefully aligning a glass and didn't look up. “Can't you see I'm busy? I'll fetch you a drink in a minute.”

“It's not liquor I'm interested in so much as information,” Wells said. “You see, I represent the Portland Whaling Consortium, and I'm—”

Raising his head above the glasses, the bartender arched an eyebrow. “Whalin', did I hear you say?”

“Yes, you did,” Wells confirmed. “And I—”

“You mean those big fish that those fellers on ships harpoon for their oil and whatnot?”

“Well, actually, they're mammals,” Franklyn Wells said. “But yes, and you see—”

The barman raised his voice so the men at the table and the bar would be sure to hear. “If it's whales you're after, we have plenty over at Bear Creek. Just the other day I saw one swimmin' in the shallows.”

The two old men cackled and several of the hard cases playing poker smirked.

The one who didn't pushed back his chair and approached. As thin as a broomstick, he had a hooked nose and wore a Remington rigged for a cross draw. His store-bought clothes hadn't been washed since he bought them and his teeth were as yellow as sunflowers. “What do we have here?”

“Didn't you hear him, Dyson?” the barman said. “He's one of them whalers.”

“No, actually, I'm not,” Wells said. “I represent the Portland Whaling Consortium. “
They
are whalers. Or, rather, they were. The whaling trade has about died off, as I'm sure you're aware, thanks to kerosene. However, some of the former captains of some of those whaling vessels are looking to invest their considerable capital. The consortium is in the process of establishing the Badlands Land and Cattle Company to take advantage of the coming boom.”

“Will you listen to you?” Dyson said. “You sure love to jabber.” His hand darted out, and he snatched the bowler.

“Here, now. What are you doing?”

“I'm about to have me some fun,” Dyson said. Tossing the bowler to the floor, he placed his hand on his Remington. “Let's see how many times I can make it skip.”

“I'd rather you didn't,” Wells said. “It cost me a pretty penny.”

“What's to stop me?” Dyson taunted.

“How about me?” Neal had entered unnoticed and stood just inside the batwings. Ignoring the men at the table and the bar, he strode over, picked up the bowler, and jammed it onto Wells's head. “You lost your hat.”

Dyson took a step back and tensed as if he expected Neal to draw. When Neal didn't, he looked Neal up and down and said, “You look like the real article, but you must be another weak sister.”

“My folks used to say that I'm as strong as an ox,” Neal remarked.

“But not very smart,” Dyson said, and snapped his fingers at his friends at the table. They were quick to rise and come over, spreading as they came so they were between Neal and Wells and the batwings.

“We're not huntin' trouble,” Neal said.

“No, sir,” Franklyn Wells said, bobbing his head. “All we want is some information, if you would be so kind.”

Dyson curled his lip in contempt. “You rile me, little man. You and your city clothes, and pretendin' to be so damn polite, even when you've been insulted. It ain't natural.”

“Sure ain't,” a heavyset man in buckskins said. He had a Sharps in the crook of his arm, and wore a beaver hat.

Neal moved in front of Franklyn Wells. “You can insult us all you want, but we won't be prodded. Answer Mr. Wells or things will get ugly.”

“What will you do?” the man in the beaver hat asked. “Slap leather against all four of us?”

“Slappin' is my job,” said a new voice.

Jericho stood just inside the batwings, his arms at his sides, as casual as could be. But there was nothing casual about the glint in his blue eyes. He moved his right arm slightly, and the pearl grips on his Colt gleamed bright in the light.

“Who are you and how do you fit in?” Dyson demanded.

“I squish flies,” Jericho said.

“I'd like to see you try,” the man in the beaver hat declared.

“Careful, now, Stimms,” Dyson said. “I don't like the looks of this one.”

Stimms turned toward Jericho and placed his thumb on the hammer of his Sharps. “You heard him say he can squish us. Who does he think he is? That fancy Colt don't scare me none.”

“It should,” Neal said.

Just then someone coughed, as if to get their attention.

Another man had come out of a hall to the back. Uncommonly handsome, he was attired in a frock coat such as gamblers wore, and a white shirt with frills. He wore no gun that anyone could see.

His arm was around the waist of a woman twice his age. Once, she had been beautiful, but the ravages of years on the line hadn't been kind. Her dress, too, was past its prime, and here and there red thread showed where patchwork held it together. “Strangers, by God, Beaumont.”

“I can see that, darlin',” Beaumont said. “And someone has started a fracas without my say-so.”

“We were only havin' a little fun,” Dyson said quickly.

“In my saloon,” Beaumont said.

“You were in the back with her,” Dyson said. “We know better than to disturb you when she's relaxin' you, as you like to say.”

“I have a name,” the woman said. “It's Darietta.”

“Hush, darlin',” Beaumont said. Letting go, he smoothed his expensive jacket and came over and offered his hand to Franklyn Wells. “I always judge a man by his clothes, and yours, sir, cost more than both of your friends' combined. Beaumont Adams, at your service.”

“Some civility, at last,” Wells exclaimed happily. “I'm delighted to make your acquaintance. “These other gentlemen seemed intent on—what's the expression? Bucking us out in gore?”

“You don't need to worry there,” Neal said. “That's why I brought Jericho along.”

“Introduce me to your friends,” Beaumont said to Wells.

“Certainly. The man who just addressed you is Mr. Neal Bonner. He was foreman at the Diamond T Ranch in the panhandle country until my employers hired him away to work for them. They say he's forgotten more about cattle raising than most men ever learn.”

“Do tell,” Beaumont said. He indicated Jericho. “Who is he and what does he do?”

“He squishes things,” Neal said.

“How interestin',” Beaumont said. “Did you hear them, Dyson? And you, Stimms? Don't you find it interestin', too?”

Dyson and Stimms looked at each other in confusion.

“How about you finish your card game while I deal with these gents?” Beaumont said.

The pair offered no argument. If anything, they were anxious to please.

“My word,” Franklyn Wells said. “Look at them scurry. You'd think they were scared to death of you.”

“You would, wouldn't you?” Beaumont said. Smiling, he clapped Wells on the back. “How about I treat you to drinks?”

“As I was telling the bartender,” Wells said, “we're really only in need of information.”

“I insist,” Beaumont said. “To make up for the shabby treatment you received from those in my employ.” His hand still on Wells's back, he ushered him to the bar. The two old men hastily moved aside. “Floyd, a bottle of the best brandy for my new friends.”

“The best?” the bartender said.

“Do I have to tell you twice?”

Floyd blanched. “No, sir.” He picked a bottle from the back of a shelf thronged with all kinds.

“I took you for a brandy man,” Beaumont said to Wells. “But if you'd rather have whiskey or somethin' else, say the word.”

“Brandy is fine,” Franklyn Wells said.

“What would your friends like?”

“None for me, thanks,” Neal said. “I'm workin'.”

“How about your blue-eyed partner yonder?” Beaumont said. “Does he drink or does he only squish?”

“He doesn't drink when he's on a job, neither,” Neal said. “But yes, he's the best squisher I know.”

“Is he someone I'd have heard of?”

“Down to Texas you would have. But not in these parts,” Neal said, adding, “Yet.”

“Do tell,” Beaumont Adams said. “This gets more interestin' by the minute.”

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