Longarm in Hell's Half Acre

Playing With Dynamite

The explosion's force hit everyone watching directly in the face. A prehistoric rumble welled up out of the earth's scarred and tortured hide. The clap of doom grew, swelled, and turned into thunder.

The boulder slipped free of its earthly bonds and fell through the air like a gigantic rust-colored cannonball. It rocketed through Calico Jack's roof like a Comanche war spear. The cabin exploded in a cyclone of flying wreckage.

Longarm heeled it around the protective boulders for a closer look. The others assembled in an amazed knot of pointing, chin scratching, head shaking, and mumbled commentary.

Mike Rader gazed up at the mushroom-shaped cloud of thick, red dust. “That's got to be the damnedest thing I've ever seen in my entire life.”

Stewart Potts yelled, “Got any more of that dynamite, Marshal Long? Maybe we could set off another stick or three just for the fun of it.”

“Helluva performance you done put on for us today, Marshal,” said Skunk Hornbuckle. “Bet folks'll be tellin' this tale for years to come. I ain't never even heard of nuthin' to match 'er.”

Then, to everyone's slack-jawed bewilderment and total surprise, a singular and stunning miracle occurred. Calico Jack Blackman stumbled out of the billowing waves of dust…like a ghostly performer in a traveling magician's show…

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TABOR EVANS
LONGARM
IN HELL'S HALF ACRE

JOVE BOOKS, NEW YORK

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

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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.

LONGARM IN HELL'S HALF ACRE

A Jove Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2007 by The Berkley Publishing Group.

Cover illustration by Miro Sinovcic.

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

ISBN: 978-1-1012-1506-7

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Chapter 1

Along the rugged west bank of the Purgatoire River, nigh twenty miles south of Bent's Old Fort, Longarm flipped the top-most layer of his bedroll aside. He rubbed sleep from his eyes with the back of one hand, pushed his snuff-colored Stetson down tight on his head, then plucked a foot-long stick from the dirt.

The droopy-eyed deputy U.S. marshal swayed to unsteady feet from the grasping comfort afforded by his still comfortably warm ground pallet, stretched a kinked spine like a recently awakened bear, then bent over and poked at the embers of a rekindled campfire. A sparkling stream of cold, clear water rushed headlong toward the south a mere thirty yards from the campsite.

Longarm grimaced, while coming fully erect again, then cast a quick, unconcerned glance toward the dark, hairy-faced man in leg irons who hobbled up a section of the river's rocky embankment. A soot-covered, sloshing coffeepot was precariously balanced between the man's grimy, grit-encrusted hands.

“Hurry the hell up with the water, Skunk,” Longarm yelled. “I'm in serious need of a good shot a up-and-at-'em juice. Swear to Jesus, you musta been born tired and raised lazy. Your drag-assed ways are throwin' an inconvenient hitch in my mornin' devotions, you bank-robbin' son of a bitch.”

Elroy “Skunk” Hornbuckle's musical leg shackles clinked and jingled as he half-stepped to Longarm's side. The red-eyed prisoner stumbled to a stop like an unwashed pile of varmint-infested rags atop a pair of drunken legs. He grunted, then spat, “If'n I'd a knowed I's gonna end up bein' the sorely abused manservant to a badge-totin' hard-ass like you, Marshal Custis Fuckin' Long, might not a done 'er. Yessir, I'd a given serious thought to passin' on that unfortunate piece a bullet-riddled business I done got led into, like a innocent child, up in Glenwood Springs. Yes, by God, I surely would've.”

Hornbuckle slapped the charred tin pot onto the blue-tinted flames. Some of the liquid sloshed from beneath the dented vessel's lid and onto the superheated cinders. The coals hissed, popped, and sent a cloud of steam billowing into Longarm's face. Hornbuckle snorted with delight at his captor's discomfort. He stifled a sniggering laugh behind the back of a grubby paw.

Longarm gritted his teeth, wiped at one eye for a second, then squatted. He pulled fresh coffee from his possibles bag and dumped the required amount of dark, aromatic grounds into the pot and flipped the lid closed. As he rocked back on his heels, he fished around till several stringy sticks of rock-hard beef jerky presented themselves from the canvas sack's murky depths. Much like feeding a stray dog, he pitched a piece of the leathery stuff to his smelly captive.

“Gonna take a few minutes for them grounds to boil up, so I'd appreciate it if you'd stand somewhere over on the other side of the fire, Skunk. Odiferous bouquet of stinkweed and polecat you're so freely puttin' off ain't doin' a thing toward makin' this whole dance any more palatable. You're a-layin' a serious reekin' on a damned fine mornin'. Take all these flies with you.”

Hornbuckle gnawed off a chunk of the petrified meat. “Right tasty,” he mumbled between slobbery efforts to chew. He shook his head like an old wolf with a flea in its ear, then said, “What the fuck do pa-lat-able mean. Pa-lat-able. That some kinda insult? Sounds like a insult to me, by God. Hell's eternal fires, Long, you done went and whacked me on the noggin with yer pistol barrel. Gonna offend me now as well?”

For the first time that morning, Longarm cracked a toothy smile. “Still astonishes me, no end, what some people find to worry over. You could give a rat's ass about me sayin' in no uncertain terms, you stink, but you don't want me usin' words you don't understand—that it, Skunk? Now get the hell over on the other side of the fire. Jesus, my nose hairs are turnin' into corkscrews.”

Hornbuckle puffed up like an insulted south Louisiana bullfrog, then shuffled his way to the newly assigned spot. He flopped down atop a convenient rock on the side of the fire nearest the tree line. As if lost in concentration, he stared at passing clouds, then nodded to himself and said, “Damned right, Long. They's folks as claim I been puttin' off a smell 'bout like a wet dog what's been set afire fer as far back as I can 'member.

“Don't surprise me one bit.”

“Well, by God, I could care less what any a you perfumed and pomaded bastards think 'bout how I smells. But it do make me some hot when them as think they's so high and mighty wanna talk words where I cain't figure out what they's a sayin'. Pa-lat-able. Ain't never heerd a pa-lat-able afore. If'n I wasn't hobbled up like some kinda field-workin' farm animal, I'd sure 'nuff try and kick yer ass, Mr. Deputy U.S. Marshal Custis Fuckin' Long.”

Longarm poked around in the fire with his stick. “Well, other than smellin' like the backside of an outhouse door, you got no reason to be offended, Skunk. Palatable just means I can't take the aroma waftin' off your scruffy ass—leastways not this early in the mornin'.”

Hornbuckle threw his head back and laughed. “All a you lawdogs is just a bunch of candy asses, fer as I ever been able to tell.” As though to himself, he aimed a twitching nose at the air that hovered around him, lifted an arm, sniffed, then mumbled, “Hell, I don't smell so bad—today. Sure I've smelt worse afore.”

When the coffee took on the thick appearance of something akin to axle grease, Longarm poured two cups and gingerly passed one to his captive. Then he settled back into his bedroll and tried to enjoy the sights, the smells other than Skunk Hornbuckle, and the tastes of a glorious spring morning.

A bit of snow still decorated the ground in shaded spots here and there, but some of the trees had begun to bud out and a few multicolored wildflowers bloomed in seemingly random spots near the water. The welcome aroma of coming spring hovered in the air and almost drowned out the stench oozing off Skunk Hornbuckle's malodorous hide.

A few minutes of pleasant, peaceful silence passed, but all of a sudden, Hornbuckle hopped to his feet, tilted his bearlike head to one side, and cupped a hand over an ear that looked like someone had once tried to remove it with a ball-peen hammer.

“You hear that, Marshal?” he hissed. “They's somebody a-comin' through them trees over yonder ways. Couple of 'em—sounds like. Maybe more.”

“Been hearin' 'em for about ten minutes, Skunk. Figure they're just about ready to show.”

Longarm sat his cup on the log he'd put to his back the night before, then grabbed the Winchester propped against the saddle he'd used as a pillow to rest his weary head. He thumbed the hammer back on the rifle, laid it in his bedding, then flipped the blanket over the weapon in an effort to hide the big repeater.

He slipped the double-action, Frontier model Colt from its cross-draw holster, cocked the weapon, then crossed his arms and slid the pistol-filled hand inside his jacket as though warming the hidden hand. He'd barely gotten comfortable again when a pair of riders urged their animals out of the dense timber, less than a hundred feet down the brush-choked tree line.

One of the riders rose in his stirrups, waved his hat, and called out, “Hello, the camp. Hello the camp. Coffee smells mighty good, gents. Can we approach?”

The sudden realization that he stood between Longarm's weapons and the strangers appeared to hit Skunk Hornbuckle like a fist. The stinky, filth-encrusted thief grunted like a scared porker, ducked his head, and jingled to a spot behind his captor's log.

With his free hand, Longarm waved the riders forward, then retrieved his cup and assumed the look of a man not the least concerned by the unexpected turn of events.

The tallest of the two strangers, broad in the shoulder and narrow of hip, stepped down first. He pushed back his gray felt hat and exposed an open, friendly face framed by gold-colored hair and decorated with a massive handlebar chin tickler. In what Longarm took as an effort to put the campers at their ease, the man led his long-legged blood bay up to the site rather than ride in.

Longarm's studied gaze flicked from one rider to the other as the tall man's younger companion climbed off his animal and followed suit. Soon enough, both men hunkered near the fire, produced their own cups, and sipped at the freshly brewed, steaming hot belly wash.

“Mighty fine stuff,” the moustache said, then sucked at his fluffy whiskers and saluted Longarm with his battered cup. “Right neighborly of you to invite us in. Needed somethin' to warm us up, sir. Been in the saddle since before the crack of dawn.”

Longarm's concentrated gaze flitted back and forth from one man to the other. Both strangers carried sidearms strapped high on their waists, but neither made any move to pull his coat away from his weapon. After a minute or so of silence, he said, “What're you boys doin' way out here in the big cold and lonely? Me'n ole Skunk thought we had the whole world to ourselves this mornin'.”

The tall man pulled his coat lapel aside long enough to reveal a five-pointed star, then said, “Well, it's like this: My name's Harley Court, mister. I'm the city marshal up in Hadleyville.” He hooked a thumb in the direction of his younger companion. “This here's my deputy, Rudy Crabtree. We done chased a soulless, murderin' back shooter by the name of Calico Jack Blackman up into Wild Horse Canyon, few miles down river from here. He went an' burrowed up like a Rocky Mountain tick in a log cabin way in the back of that rugged slash in the earth's tortured hide. Damned place is like a log fort, settin' flush up agin' the canyon's back wall.”

Longarm took a sip from his still-steaming cup. “Calico Jack Blackman, huh? Well, you boys done picked a bad'un to be a chasin', Marshal Court. Calico Jack's 'bout as evil of a son of a bitch as they get. Couldn't tempt him to come on out and throw up his hands, I don't expect.”

Deputy Rudy Crabtree cast a bemused, gap-toothed smile at the back of Marshal Court's head. One of his thumb-sized front teeth wiggled like it might fall out. “Hell, we couldn't even get close to the place. That there cabin's on a mound of dirt. Kinda raises it up above everthang. He wuz a shootin' down on us from gun slits 'tween the logs.” The deputy touched his flapping tooth, then continued, “Laughin' like a thing insane the whole time, he wuz. Couldn't even get a shot at his horse. Had the animal in a sheltered corral 'round behind the cabin. Tough nut to crack, mister. Real tough.”

Court appeared to relax. He shifted out of the squat, sat flat on the ground, then leaned over on one elbow like a man tired to the bone. “Left three of my other posse members back yonder, to keep ole Jack occupied. Me'n Rudy 'uz on our way back to town. Thought to raise some more fellers. Come on back quick as we could. But, the more I think on the deal, it might be a total waste of time and effort.”

“How so?” Longarm asked.

“Well, ole Jack'll probably figure out he's dealing with clerks, bartenders, and stable hands sooner or later. Shoot his way past my boys. Be gone by the time we can make it all the way back out here again.” He waved absently at the whole countryside in general, then let the arm flop down against his side.

Longarm tapped the side of his cup with one finger. “Now be at ease, gents. Just want to show you somethin'.” He pushed his coat open with his free hand and pulled out the wallet containing all his official credentials. When he flipped the leather cover aside, the polished, silver deputy U.S. marshal's badge glittered in the morning sunlight. “My name's Custis Long, Marshal Court. I work out of Denver. And I must admit that I've had occasion to chase Calico Jack around the countryside a time or two myself.”

Court's lopsided grin widened into a broad smile. He shook his head. “Just be damned. Now ain't this somethin' of a wonderment, Rudy? What're the chances we'd fall in with other lawmen, way the hell out here in the middle of nowheres, Colorado? Good Lord musta took a likin' to us today.”

Skunk Hornbuckle took offense. The fettered thief leapt to his feet and snapped, “Lawmen? Did you say lawmen? Hell's fuckin' bells, I ain't no lawman.” He snatched the chain to his leg irons up and shook it at Hadleyville's smiling marshal. “And I want you bastards to know that Calico Jack be a dear friend of mine. Man's the salt of the earth, fer as I'm concerned. Finer feller cain't be found in these parts.”

Rudy Crabtree's face went scarlet. “Well, your dear friend rode into our peaceful little town few days back, mister.” His voice sounded like a dull saw going through hard wood. “Went and robbed the only hardware and implement dealership as we've got. Shot the owner deader'n Abe Lincoln, right in front of his poor shocked wife.”

“Musta had a reason fer such a killin',” Skunk grumped.

“That ain't the half of what he done,” Crabtree snapped back. “Just for what appeared the sheer hell of it, he trampled a child to death with that fire-breathin', star-faced, black-as-the-depths-of-hell horse of his'n on the way outta town. Don't know 'bout anyone else as might have an opinion on the subject, but I'd say you need to be a-pickin' your friends with a bit more care.”

Hornbuckle looked sheepish. His chin dropped to his chest. For a second, he swayed like an aspen struck by lightning. His lips moved several times, but no words came out. Finally, he flopped back down behind the sheltering log, silently stared at the ground, and went to picking at the grass like a chastised child.

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