Authors: Kerry Newcomb
Ride the Panther
“For Patty, Amy Rose, P. J.,
and Emily Anabel”
“He who chooses to ride the panther can never dismount”
EN MCQUEEN CROUCHED LOW
behind a barrel of nails, tore a strip from his shirt, and wadded the piece of cloth into the bullet hole in his tricep. His wounded left arm hurt like hell. It had left a trail of blood leading directly to his hiding place in this corner of the warehouse. Gritting his teeth, Ben probed the wound. The pistol ball had almost passed through the underside of his arm. He could feel the slug beneath his skin. He fished in his coat and found a pocketknife, then slit the skin with the blade’s keen edge and flipped the bloody slug out into the palm of his hand. Ben wrapped his upper arm in the torn sleeve of his shirt. He had to hurry his doctoring. After all, two men were trying to kill him. It was the night of August sixteenth, 1863. Ben wondered if he’d live to see the seventeenth dawn.
At six feet two inches, Ben McQueen had offered a big target for his would-be assassins. It was a testament to their poor marksmanship and his surprisingly quick reflexes that he was still alive. His hat was gone; his red hair trimmed close to his skull was matted with sweat. Salt stung his pain-filled green eyes. He hurt. But he was alive and wanted to stay that way.
Who was trying to kill him? The message to come alone and at night to the warehouse had been a ruse to trap him. He’d expected as much, but he had come anyway, risking his life on the slim chance the note had been for real.
Well now, Ben McQueen,
you’ve joined the game and must play the cards you’re dealt.
Ben slipped a hand inside his coat and drew a .36 caliber Navy Colt from his waistband. An extra cylinder, fully loaded, was a reassuring weight in his side pocket. Slow as molasses in winter, he eased up and to the side, keeping to the shadow cast by another couple of nail barrels stacked one atop the other. From this vantage point he could study the entire warehouse.
It was a dark, spacious building with its back to the Missouri River and front door opening onto River Street, bold and brash and sinful; home to some of Kansas City’s more notorious denizens. The warehouse was nearly filled with neatly arranged stacks of barrels and crates and fifty-pound sacks of grain that formed islands of merchandise between intersecting aisles wide enough to accommodate loading carts.
Ben was hunkered near the back wall. He’d been caught in the middle of the building and had run a gauntlet of gunfire to reach the nail kegs where he’d gained a few moments of respite. The wounded man searched the gloomy interior for some sign of his attackers. He inhaled slowly, measuring every breath. And he listened for the telltale creak of timber, the misplaced step, anything, no matter how subtle. He glanced toward the back door and figured it opened onto a pier. While calculating his chances of reaching the door without being shot, Ben caught a glimpse of a stoop-shouldered, bearded man in a wool cap. He darted through a patch of moonlight that streamed through an unshuttered window just beyond the back door.
Ben silently counted. A gunshot sounded to his left and a bullet fanned his cheek before exploding a fist-sized chunk out of a nail keg. He caught a faceful of woody debris and dropped to the floor.
“I got him, Seth!” a voice bellowed. Heavy steps thudded on the wooden floor. Fabric ripped as this second attacker tore his shirt on the splintery corner of a crate.
“Be careful, Justin,” Seth, the stoop-shouldered man nearest the pier door, shouted out.
“Careful, sheet-it. You just want first claim on his boots. Well, you’re too late. I shot him plumb dead. Right through the brisket. I seen him fall.”
“It’s too damn dark to see,” Seth replied, unwilling to leave the safety of the shadows he had found. He lacked the confidence of his associate. And he’d heard stories of Ben McQueen.
“C’mon, Yankee, you’re dead, ain’t cha?” This assassin was not a patient man. Despite his companion’s words of warning, Justin hurried down the dusty aisle between the stored goods until he reached the rear wall of the warehouse.
Ben crouched like a big cat and edged soundlessly past the kegs. His cheek bore a pattern of crimson streaks where wood splinters had stung his flesh like so many angry bees. Working his way in the dark, he brushed his crudely bandaged left arm against the corner of a workbench and had to bite his lip to keep from crying out as pain seared the length of his left side from his toes to his neck. His knees trembled, his stomach did flipflops, and he would have doubled over right then except it might have cost him his life. So Ben resisted the temptation and inhaled slowly and rode the waves of nausea and hurt. Pinpricks of light exploded on the periphery of his vision like fireworks, but he remained conscious and in control of his faculties.
Ben studied the tabletop he’d brushed against. Some worker had abandoned an assortment of wooden pulleys and other hoisting equipment, even a couple of coils of rope. Ben chose a heavy metal pulley with an iron hook at one end and two free-spinning wheels encased by a worn wooden frame. He knelt and laid his Navy Colt on the floor, hefted the pulley in his strong right hand, and hurled it toward the center of the warehouse. The man called Seth was a cool one and not about to fire blind. Justin was another story entirely. A pair of guns opened fire. The twin muzzle flashes revealed a grizzled-looking individual with stringy brown hair and close-set eyes. He was dressed in a ragged frock coat a size or two too big for him and drab blue dungarees. Unarmed, he would have presented no threat, but his booming Colts were the measure of this man.
The assassin fired four quick shots in the direction of the pulley, then, as if suspecting a ruse, charged the nail kegs. He filled them full of holes, and when he reached the back wall, he shifted his aim yet a third time and squeezed off several rounds at an array of farm implements. One slug shattered a broom handle, another a hoe, and he shot a pick axe to slivers. The noise of his guns was deafening in the confines of the rear passageway. Black smoke clouded the confines and blinded him further. He sensed motion to his right and tried to shift his stance, but Ben fired as the man turned. The gunman dropped one gun and clutched at his throat. He staggered off toward the center of the warehouse, tripped over a whiskey bottle, and bounced off a stack of fifty-pound bags of oats—and all the while he made the most horrid sound, a kind of strangled scream like a man drowning, a man come face to face with death and wholly unprepared, a man in agony and desperate for one… precious… minute… more… of… life.
Justin toppled back against the bags of oats. Dying, he fired a final round that blew a hole in a burlap bag. Dried oats cascaded over the man’s head and shoulders as he slid to the hardwood floor. His upper torso was soon buried in the dusty white grain.
Silence. The gunshots would alert no one. Along Kansas City’s riverfront at night, trouble was a way of life. Flesh was bought and sold. Raw whiskey flowed like sweat. Men minded their own business here. And women minded the men.
Fortunately Ben McQueen was not the kind to wait around for help. He intended to walk out of this warehouse alive and kicking, and if that meant through a haze of powder smoke, so be it. Someone had set him up. He intended to find out who. He figured he already knew why. Ben McQueen had been an ardent and vocal supporter of the Northern cause since Fort Sumter, a stand that had placed him in the gunsights of Confederate sympathizers. He winced and adjusted the makeshift bandage on his arm. But for uncommon swiftness and pure dumb luck, he would have been worm food.
“Justin?” The voice sounded near the rear door. Ben continued to crouch near the worktable. Barrels of salt pork and wooden crates whose contents were unknown separated him from the bearded assailant called Seth.
“Justin? Damn it.”
Ben shifted his stance, eased underneath the worktable, and positioned himself behind a long row of pork barrels stacked three high. Ben wrinkled his nose at the strong smell.
“Is the bastard dead?”
“Not hardly,” Ben said. A shot rang out. He ducked instinctively. The bullet thudded into an empty coffin set upright in a far corner at the end of the rear aisle. Two more gunshots followed the first. Ben heard the rasp of a wooden bolt sliding back. The sound galvanized him into action. He stepped out from hiding. Seth stood by the rear door. The bearded man was outlined against a shaft of moonlight filling the window behind him.
Ben fired. Seth answered. Gun blasts illuminated the darkness. The stoop-shouldered man shoved the door open and vanished outside. A bullet from McQueen chased him through the doorway. Ben trotted down the aisle and peered past the doorsill and saw his attacker stumble out onto the pier stretching out from the dock that ran the length of the warehouse.
Ben wasted no time in following the man into the night, then stood motionless while the warm evening air washed over him. Smoke trailed from the barrel of his Navy Colt, but the breeze bore only a faint trace of the gunpowder’s acrid residue. He heard the distant tinny melody of a piano drifting on the wings of the wind. The river seemed ablaze, reflecting the glare from brightly lit saloons, brothels, and gambling dens lining the waterfront. Ben abandoned the safety of the doorway and started after the man who had tried to kill him. There was no place to run. A pier ran straight out from the doorway into the black expanse of the Missouri River.
Up ahead, the bearded man stumbled the remaining twenty yards, then dropped to his knees a few feet from pier’s end.
Ben took his time, his left arm cradled stiff against his side. The wooden planking creaked and groaned beneath his weight.
Seth heard the big man approach, and extended his right arm, dropping the Dragoon Colt in plain sight. The heavy weapon clattered onto the weathered planks.
“Enough. You’ve done me,” the bearded man groaned. With his left hand clamped to his gut he bowed forward, his breath coming in ragged gasps. “I’m all…cut up inside. Your last bullet caught me in the…”
Ben slowed but continued to warily close in on the man who had tried to kill him. He lowered his Navy Colt, but was ready to bring the weapon to bear at the first threatening move from Seth. Across the river, twinkling lantern lights dotted the opposite shore where buffalo hunters had made a camp and were awaiting a ferry to take them across come morning. Ben stood alongside his attacker and nudged the Dragoon Colt out of its owner’s reach.
A pool of blood had begun to form beneath the kneeling man. The left side of his shirt was soaked. Suddenly, gunfire erupted on the opposite bank as two quarrelers settled their differences in the court of Judge Colt. Seth grimly chuckled as he watched those distant guns blossom flame. “Looks like I’ll have company with the devil.”