Read Luke's Gold Online

Authors: Charles G. West

Luke's Gold

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When Cade's eyes flicked open, Brady reached down, grabbed him by his hair with one hand, and pressed a long skinning knife against Cade's throat with the other. “Now, Mr. Big Shot,” he uttered in a drunken drawl, “I'm fixin' to slice you from ear to ear.”
Fully alert by then, Cade immediately raised his arm from under the blanket and jammed his Colt .45 hard into the crotch of Brady's trousers. The big man grunted in shock. “Cut away, you son of a bitch,” Cade growled. “I'll turn you into a gelding before you get halfway across.”
Stunned, Brady staggered backward and sat down hard on the ground. Reaching for his pistol, he was stopped cold by a sharp rap against the back of his skull.
“Hardheaded bastard,” Luke complained. “I hope he ain't bent my rifle barrel.”
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, November 2008
eISBN : 978-1-440-65294-3
Copyright © Charles G. West, 2008
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For Ronda
Chapter 1
Lem Snider glared down in anger at the body sprawled on the ground before him. In a fit of rage, he kicked the corpse several times. “Goddamn dirt-poor bastard,” he bellowed, cursing the pathetic remains of a gray-haired prospector who had had the misfortune of encountering the four men now searching every inch of his camp. “Tear this damn place apart. They must have somethin' hid around here somewhere, or they wouldn'ta been camped here so long.”
He then turned his anger to level it at Henry Nix. “And hurry up, dammit. We got to get the hell outta here, thanks to you.”
“Hell, Lem,” Nix replied, “I couldn't help it if that other feller got away. If we'da come up on 'em from downstream, we'da seen their horses in the trees.”
Snider was in no mood to hear excuses. His policy was to leave no witnesses. Nix had been the only one of the four to get a clean shot at the boy galloping away on one of the horses that had been tied below the camp, and he'd missed. To further infuriate Snider, Nix had pulled his bandanna down before he realized the boy was there. “We ain't got a lotta time before that boy gets into town, and he saw your face,” Snider scolded.
“Well, he didn't have much time to see it,” Nix said. “Hell, he was most likely too scared to remember my face.”
They were interrupted by a shout from the stream. “Here it is!” Curly Jenkins exclaimed. “I found it! It's always hid under a rock somewhere.” A big, simpleminded brute, Curly rolled a large stone over at the stream's edge. “Don't look like much of a poke, though,” he said when he took the small hide pouch from under the stone. He immediately handed the pouch to Snider when Lem held out his hand.
Peering inside the sack, Snider snorted. “There ain't much here, but I reckon it's enough to split three ways.” His comment caused raised eyebrows on all three of his companions.
“Whaddaya mean, three ways?” Bob Dawson wanted to know right away. If someone was going to lose his share, Dawson was damn certain it wasn't going to be him.
Lem Snider focused his gaze on Henry Nix, but said nothing. Feeling the stares now of three pairs of eyes, Henry glanced nervously from one man to another. “Now wait a minute,” he blurted, “I don't know what you're thinkin', but I don't like the way you're lookin' at me.”
“You don't get a split,” Snider told him. “You got yourself spotted, and you ain't gonna take the rest of us to jail with you. That boy brings the sheriff back here, he's gonna identify you and the rest of us, too. I'm gonna be easy on you, and let you ride on outta here. Me and Curly and Bob will go our way, and you go yours. But you ain't gettin' no split of this little bit of dust, 'cause you ain't a member of my gang anymore.”
“I'll be damned!” Nix blurted. “I worked just as much as anybody else for that dust. You ain't cuttin' me off.” He looked quickly back and forth between Curly and Dawson, but saw no sympathy there.
Snider drew his pistol and leveled it at Nix. “You're runnin' outta time. Get on that horse and ride, or get shot down right where you stand.”
Nix's heavy brows knitted as he scowled bitterly, the anger glistening in his eyes. For a moment, his hand hovered over his holster, but the gun barrel already staring at him discouraged a futile attempt. “All right,” he finally said, “I'm goin', and no hard feelin's.” He dropped a shovel he had picked up near the old man's body and walked toward his horse. As he walked past Snider, Snider stepped back, and when he did, Nix made a sudden lunge toward him, grabbing his gun hand and bowling him over. Down they went, rolling over and over on the ground, each man straining to get the upper hand.
Snider fought desperately to free his gun hand in order to finish Nix quickly, but Nix held Snider's arms locked in a bear hug. Snider responded by head-butting Nix. Nix was getting the worst of it, and retaliated by clamping his teeth down on Snider's right ear. Howling with pain, Snider jerked his head away, leaving the tip of his ear in Henry's mouth. Grinning malevolently, Nix spat the piece of cartilage in Snider's face, causing the injured man to explode in uncontrollable rage. Ripping his hand free, he smashed Nix's face with the barrel of his six-gun again and again until the battered man's resistance was reduced to a weak tremble throughout his body. Seeing that Nix was unconscious, Snider rested the barrel of his pistol on Henry's bloody forehead and pulled the trigger.
Snider rose slowly to his feet, breathing heavily from exertion. With his pistol still drawn, he looked in turn at each of the two witnesses, in his eyes the unspoken question they both understood. The first to respond was Curly, the simple hulk whose name derived from his hairless pate. “I'da helped you, Lem, but I was afeared if I'da tried to shoot him, I mighta hit you.”
Bob Dawson simply shrugged his shoulders and muttered, “I figured you didn't need no help.” When Snider continued to stare at him, he added, “He had it comin'.”
Snider knew that between his two partners, the surly Dawson was the one to keep an eye on. Curly was mindless, and like a hound dog, just wanted someone to tell him what to do. The fact that Curly and Bob didn't like each other was a positive thing in Snider's mind, because it lessened the likelihood of their combining to gang up on him.
“Curly,” Snider commanded, “turn over the rest of those rocks along the edge there. Make sure we don't leave anything.” Turning to Dawson then, he said, “Let's get outta here before we have company.” He reached down and ripped the front of Henry Nix's shirt. Then, using his knife to cut a section away, he used the square to dab his bloody ear. “We'll split up the dust after we put some distance behind us.”
Riding out of the miner's camp, Snider led them toward the river. He was thinking about the little pouch of gold dust they had just taken. It wasn't much. He was thinking that it was time to leave this part of the country. They had left too many bodies in too many spent mining claims to make it healthy to hang around much longer. Each claim they had bushwhacked had failed to provide the big payoff he had been looking for, and his frustration was beginning to wear on him. He turned in the saddle to address the two following him. “It's time we looked for new pickin's. We'll head east toward Coulson.”
“Well, at least there's a saloon and a whorehouse there,” Bob Dawson muttered to himself.
 
Young Cade Hunter stood gazing down at the bay gelding lying still at his feet. His Colt .45 still in his hand, he shook his head in apology. “Damn, I'm sorry, Billy, but there wasn't any other choice.” Just one month past his twentieth birthday, Cade could not remember a time when old Billy was not there. The horse was at least as old as he was, and was the last tie Cade had to his boyhood home. He looked again at the broken foreleg, snapped like a dried limb, the bone protruding awkwardly at an angle, the result of an unseen prairie dog hole. “You're just too damn old to heal that bone, even if I coulda put a splint on it,” he tried to explain to the dead horse.

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