"Two shadows be movin' on the roof. Across the street. The fine store that be Doc Williams's." Texas Ranger "Old Thunder" Kileen growled the alert without looking away from the shuttered window in the small Bennett jail. "Unless it be the wee people comin' to call, I'd say we got us some Silver Mallow boys."
The huge lawman could only see through a narrow crack, but it was enough. His nephew, Texas Ranger Time Carlow, looked up from the desk where he was shoving new cartridges into the sawed-off Winchester carbine he carried like a handgun.
"You stay here, Thunder, and cover me. I'll go get them." Carlow stood and spun the lever into readiness. Long black hair paraded across his shoulders. A tailored mustache and brooding eyebrows reinforced his combative appearance.
"No, let me be pickin' the devils off right from here, me son," Kileen said, tapping the shutters three times for luck. The window closure offered a small gun slot for that purpose. The superstitious Ranger usually told anyone who would listen that such knocking got the attention of spirits living in the wood, so they could honor his wishes. He didn't give the reasoning now; Carlow would've been annoyed, having heard it often.
"They'll stay down after the first shot, Thunder. Shannon and Noah will be comin' back from patrol soon. They'd be sitting ducks." Carlow moved to the jail door and opened it slightly. "If we can capture them, we might learn something, too."
Outside, a bleak November sky was unable to stop the relentless cold shadows that were seizing the winter-nipped prairie or keep the tense border town from hiding within them. A ribbon of dust shot through the opening and spun erratically across the planked floor, pushed there by a dying red sun. Time Carlow pointed his weapon at the tiny dust whirl. "If you're from Silver Mallow's gang, you're in trouble. Bang."
His chuckle was met by a grunt from Kileen. "'Tis a warnin', it is, from the wee people for ye to stay put," the big Irishman said, without turning away from the shuttered window.
"Which side are the 'wee people' on, Thunder?"
Carlow's confident manner belied what they faced. If the notorious Silver Mallow and his band of outlaws attacked the town of Bennett, it would be tonight. If they came, it would be nearly thirty heavily armed bandits against four Rangers. Bennett's sheriff and his deputies left soon after the Rangers brought in the eight Mallow gang prisoners. The sheriff cited pressing family concerns a day's ride away. His two part-time deputies refused to stay in the jail with the Rangers and were last seen drinking, playing cards, and enjoying the lilac-sweetened girls in the rooms at the Corao.
It didn't matter. Kileen and Carlow had prepared themselves for the challenge from their position in the city sheriff's adobe-and-timbered office and jail, while the other two Rangers patrolled the town. Once a hardware store, the stand-alone building sat more or less in the center of the primary retail street, augmented by a heavy door and shuttered windows. As dusk seeped into the room, a weary candle was the only thing they could find to enhance the solitary oil lamp. The candle's uneven flame was an indication of its short life.
For the first time, Carlow was glad the jail was gray; the outlaws on the roof wouldn't be able to detect the door opening so he could study the store and what he had to do. He could see them now, too. Or at least two shapes trying to stay low and out of sight but not quite accomplishing the feat. Unasked questions rushed into Carlow's mind as he gauged the distance between the doors of the jail and the Williams Drugstore: Were the two alone? Or just two of an entire gang coming? Could he make it without them seeing him? Or shooting him?
Yesterday's arrest was a first. No one had been able to catch any of the Mallow gang doing anything before; no county or city peace officer wanted to try. Acting on a tip, the four Rangers had captured a few Mallow gang members pushing a stolen herd of three hundred cattle toward the border yesterday. To the dismay of town leaders, they brought the rustlers into the Bennett jail with the intention of hanging them publicly as a warning to other outlaws. The recovered cattle were grazing on a hillside outside of town until their rightful owner could come. A messenger had been sent with the good news to rancher M. J. Cahal, a day's ride to the west.
Throughout the day, stories of the gang's threats to break their friends out of jail floated through the trembling town. The bustling settlement of Bennett itself sat proudly along the edge of the Texas border, part of a turbulent region where ranches were attacked and burned, entire herds of cattle stolen and run into Mexico -- and honest citizens murdered or driven away. Cattle rustlers, bank robbers, gunmen, and thieves -- from both sides of the border -- were threatening the region's stability.
"No thirteenth bullet be loadin' in that fine gun, did ye?" Kileen asked, rolling away from the window and resting his back against the wall. A hard frown followed. "Thirteenth bullets not be shootin' true. Ye know that."
Carlow raised the hand-carbine like a Comanche warrior signaling an attack. "No thirteenth bullet, Thunder."
Of course, both knew he hadn't counted the cartridges to avoid the thirteenth as he loaded. And never did. Superstitions were his uncle's domain -- and his best friend, Ranger Shannon Dornan. Lowering the gun, his eyes caressed the stock with its strange Celtic carving. The same marking was on Kileen's and Dornan's rifles. Kileen said it was an ancient war symbol for victory, and neither younger man challenged his interpretation. Besides, it was an interesting design most thought was Comanche or Kiowa. Carlow liked what this gun gave him: the stopping power and accuracy of a rifle combined with the quickness of a pistol.
Carlow's uncle, a former bare-knuckle prizefighter and now just "Old Thunder" to his Ranger friends, stood like a hulking bear, watching his confident nephew. The huge brawler's concern for the striking young man he loved like a son was all over his hard, ruddy face. In the musky oil-lamp light of the jail, the ex-prizefighter looked older than his forty-two years and larger than his six-foot-two, 220-pound frame. A thick mustache sported flags of gray. His nose had been broken at least twice; his cauliflower ears definitely displayed the effects of fist combat.
He knew there was no use arguing with his nephew. He recognized Carlow could fight better than any man he'd ever known. He also knew Carlow's idea to attack was right. That's why he insisted on the four Rangers taking turns patrolling the town. If they stayed in the jail, they would be surrounded by morning. But it angered him that at least two outlaws had already slipped into Bennett unnoticed. "How ye be figgerin' on doin' this -- without gettin' your fine head blown to kingdom come?"
"Watch me. They won't expect this." Carlow grinned mischievously, the grin that signaled everything was fine and he was in control, even when neither was so. "When I start running, spray the roof with bullets. That'll keep them from seeing me."
Men were often intimidated by Carlow's easy confidence, but not "Old Thunder" Kileen. Of course, Time Carlow wasn't bothered by the huge man's growling pronouncements, either, as most men were. Turning from the window, the big Ranger watched Carlow's eyes, searching for something.
"Aye, would there be a wee bit of wisdom in that Mick head along with the handsome?"
Kileen's voice was softer than anyone would have thought his huge frame could deliver. Kileen loved what the little boy he raised had become. A Texas Ranger. He didn't like his apparent overconfidence -- or lack of understanding of the situation.
"We'll see. Wish me luck." Carlow winked at the use of the word luck and rushed through the door.
Kileen's rifle opened fire and bullets snapped at the molding around the roof. Nothing moved there that he could see. A braggart wind pushed its way down the street at the same time as Carlow ran across it, catching the stretched-out kerchief that hung low across his once-blue collarless shirt and snapping at the fringe on his Kiowa leggings. A Comanche war knife rested in his right legging; its bone handle barely visible above the buckskin where it cleared his Levi's just below the knees. Gray vest pockets rattled with extra cartridges, hard candy, and an old silver watch. The Ranger badge on his shirt caught the light and glistened for an instant before disappearing in his dash to the Williams building.
Without breaking stride, Carlow slammed his shoulder against the locked door of the closed store. Smaller than his uncle, the young Ranger was deceptively strong, with a solidly built chest, arms heavy with hard-earned muscle, and a natural inclination to fight. The impact shattered the simple lock, sending splinters across his face and body. His hat bounced away from his head as he hit the dark store floor inside. With a life of its own, the hat slid until it hit a display case with the pushed-up front brim resting against the obstacle.
From a prone position, he studied the shadowy world of shelves laden with patent medicine bottles, simple remedies of quinine, paragoric, Epsom salts, castor oil, camphor, snakeroot, and cod-liver oil, as well as pressed soaps, apothecary containers, and packages of herbal concoctions. Farther away were showcases he couldn't make out for certain, but thought they contained jewelry and eyeglasses or perfume. Beyond was the area where Doc Williams, physician-pharmacist, had his clinic. The room swirled with intertwined aromas: sour, sweet, and strange. And everywhere was silence. And shadow.
Carlow stood, cursing at the jingle of his large-roweled Mexican spurs. Carlow's light-blue eyes could be cold or soft, depending on the situation, and definitely could see into a man's soul -- or into a darkened store. He could hear boots scraping on the roof and muffled conversation.
His eyes adjusted to the darkness quickly and he spotted the wood staircase in the far corner, probably leading first to an attic storeroom, then the roof. He stepped forward and saw a polished human skull eerily staring at him from a shelf, next to a pill press, stone mortar and pestle, and a balance scale. Startled, he jumped back and bumped into a low wooden box holding umbrellas and canes. Four canes and an umbrella spilled onto the floor, sounding like someone dancing. There was no time to scold himself; heavy boots thundered down the stairs, accompanied by the rattle of spurs.
Had they heard him? No, they were continuing their descent. One was a stocky Mexican, judging by his sombrero, with cross-belted handguns; the other, a narrow-faced man in a smashed derby with a long scarf around his neck. Both carried rifles. Carlow waited until they cleared the last steps, yet were twenty feet from the back door.
"Find everything you needed, boys? There's some real pretty pills over here." Carlow's words were bullets to the two surprised outlaws.
The Mexican was the first to react, aiming his gun at the Ranger. Only his slitted eyes and clenched teeth were definable, along with the blurred flash of a rifle barrel. Three arrows of flame raced from Carlow's cut-down Winchester, firing it two-handed with the butt pushed against his hip.
Shortened in stock and barrel, the weapon also had an enlarged circular lever for speed, replacing the standard narrow one. A Waco gunsmith had converted the Winchester for him, along with making the unusual holster. He could handle the weapon one-handed as fast as most could pull a handgun. With both hands he could lever shots faster than many could fan one.
The Mexican outlaw's body jerked as the bullets took control. His eyes rolled upward and his own rifle blast followed in that direction, pounding lead into the low ceiling. Not waiting to evaluate the result of his shooting, Carlow lunged, crashing into a showcase displaying cigars, tobacco sacks, and plugs. An opened box of cigars cascaded over him. Sensing an opportunity, the second outlaw fired wildly in Carlow's direction and raced for the back door. With his rifle in his left hand, he yanked it open and stutter-stepped to a halt. The doorway was filled by a man. Ranger Aaron "Old Thunder" Kileen. At his left side was his rifle. In his huge fist it looked like a toy.
Kileen's attire contrasted greatly to Carlow's. Dressed more like a businessman than a range rider, Kileen wore a trail-stained tweed suit. Spots on his vest were from tonight's supper. Massive arms and chest put great strains on the worn fabric. His own high-crowned black hat made him appear even bigger; a close look would find a bullet hole through the upper crease. Over his suit was strapped a bullet belt weighted with a holstered pistol and a sheathed bowie knife, both carried for his right hand. Even the badge on his vest looked huge.
"Would ye be goin' to greet Silver for us, laddie? What a fine gesture that be."
The carrot-faced outlaw hesitated, then swung his rifle upward, grabbing it with his free hand. Kileen's right fist exploded into the man's face and everything stopped. The gun clattered against the floor as the outlaw's chin snapped backward and he folded to the ground. Kileen stared at the collapsed figure in front of him.
"Hopin', I was, not to kill him," Kileen said, shaking his head. "He might be willin' to tell us o' Silver's plan for the night. Since the other not be doin' much talkin', 'ceptin' to Saint Peter, bless me soul." He shook his opened right hand to rid it of the pain. "Maybe he be tellin' us what the black-hearted devil hisself be lookin' like."
No one could identify the leader, Silver Mallow, or wanted to, if they could, making things worse for the Rangers. So far, none of the captured outlaws were interested in talking about the gang's hideout or in describing their leader. In the cell a black outlaw with a long scar across his neck had announced brazenly that he was Silver Mallow, and the rest chimed in that they, too, were the infamous killer. But the Rangers, between them, knew enough of the gang members to know none was telling the truth.
Carlow finished reloading the cut-down Winchester, stood, and shoved the gun into its special holster on his right hip. Two rawhide bands held it in place against a thick leather backing tied to his leg. On the left side of his gunbelt, a short-barreled Colt was held in a tilted holster. The walnut-handle positioned butt-forward for a right-handed draw.
"I didn't have any choice, Thunder."
"I know, me son. I know."
Carlow looked back at the jail; at least the door was closed. "You shouldn't have left the jail. What if more of Mallow's men were waiting -- for us to leave? I was doing all right."
Kileen knelt beside the downed outlaw and checked for breathing. "Dammit to bloody hell, I be tryin' not to do that. Looks like I be hittin' the lad a wee too hard." He ignored his nephew's observation until he stood again. "Thought ye be sayin' Silver's gang o' devils would not be comin'?"
He was worried, but that wasn't the reason for the tight-lipped grin. Actually, he never liked showing his jack-o'-lantern missing teeth, the effects of fisticuff battles and a drunken Mexican who said he was a dentist. Of course, the big Ranger was equally drunk at the time. Kileen also said it was his fault because he had dreamt about rattlesnakes the night before. Carlow could never figure what the dream had to do with it.
"Come on, Thunder, everybody in Bennett would see them sneaking in." Carlow was the only Ranger who dared to challenge the big Ranger's judgment.
"And who be seein' this pair o' Southern gentlemen -- and be tellin' us about it? Me lad, the town will be helpin' them -- or have you not been watching?" Kileen's heavy eyebrows arched, moving the flat scar at the edge of his right eyelid like the tail of a dog. "An' none o' us would know it was Silver Mallow, if his bleemin' self came a-walkin' in here to buy hisself a fine bit o' toothache powder."
Grinning, Carlow walked to the back door. Putting both hands alongside his face, he made an exaggerated attempt to look both ways. "I don't see him coming."
"Take a good look...at the fine Texas moon as she be risin' from the land," Kileen growled. "Some of us Rangers may not be seein' it again."
Thunder's statement brought Carlow's hands to his side. He looked at the senior Ranger as though Kileen had just entered the room.
"What do you mean, Thunder?" Carlow finally asked, his right hand resting on the butt of the holstered hand-carbine.
"Ye know well what I be meanin', me son." The answer slammed against the silence.
How could he convince his beloved nephew that the night would be a killing time? All the signs were there. A dead crow on the street earlier today. A certain omen of coming death. When no one was looking, he yanked a feather from the tail and stuck it in the ground. Sometimes, that created good luck by walking past it. He had done so three times. A few minutes before he left to help Carlow, the candle went out, then the flame returned. A signal of death being close to someone in the room. At least the flame hadn't turned blue, so there were no evil spirits in the room.
Carlow would have laughed if he told him. Worst of all, his ears had been ringing most of the day. His nephew would tell him it was from one too many blows from his prizefighting days. Kileen realized it was something else. The sound of a distant bell. A death peal. He had heard it before many battles. He had seen too much fighting not to know what was coming.
Kileen was proud of his nephew, anyone could see that, but the big man pushed further into the young Ranger's confidence. "These townsfolk don't want us here, lad. If they be choosin', t'is Silver they be sidin' with. Your heart an' your head must be votin' together on this." Kileen rubbed his unshaved chin and cocked his head to the side. "Silver Mallow won't come paradin' down the street -- and, if he did, these townsfolk be cheerin' for hisself. They're afraid to do otherwise. Didn't ya feel it when ye boys went to eat?"
Carlow said nothing, but his eyes spoke clearly enough. He didn't believe him. Neither did the two other Rangers. In spite of the older man's battle-wise counsel, the three young warriors thought the gang would roar into view to intimidate the Rangers into surrendering their jailed associates or try to overwhelm them if they didn't. If Silver Mallow and his gang came at all. All three expected the men of Bennett to join in the battle against the outlaws at the right moment as well. If there was one. Together, they had decided -- without discussing it with Kileen -- that Mallow's lack of known identity was a sure indication the man was overrated. They had heard him described as everything from blond-headed to black-haired, from tall to short, even as a Mexican. One story had him looking a lot like Carlow himself. It didn't make any sense to believe he was anything but a figment of scared people's imaginations.
"By me sainted sister, Silver Mallow cannot let our arrest stand. Not an' be the king he wishes to be. Count on the bastird to know we are only four. Ye know that, don't ye, lad?" Kileen continued, speaking as gently as Time Carlow could remember. "Ye be expectin' the scoundrels themselves to be sneakin' into town. Aye, the shadows will be hateful this night."
For emphasis, he pointed the Henry in his thick hands like it was a stick toward the jail. Scars on huge knuckles whitened with his tight grip as he tapped the door frame with the rifle barrel three times for luck.
"I'm not afraid of Mallow, or the Holt brothers, or any of those peckerheads with him." Carlow grinned again, walking over to retrieve his hat and shove it back on his head. "We'll catch 'em in a cross fire if they come -- and there'll be a lot of empty saddles when we're through. They've never had to deal with Rangers. Just scared rabbits like this town's excuse for lawmen."
"Aye, a wee touch o' fear can be makin' a man wise. Don't ye be looking for many when it might be only one opening the door for other rascals." Kileen's smile was again close-mouthed.
"You mean like these two?" Carlow's chiseled face, painted tan by Texas sun, wasn't hard to read. He didn't think the outlaws would come. Perhaps the hot supper had made him complacent. But he figured any bunch of outlaws charging into town would immediately draw the fire of every townsman with a gun, not to mention well-armed Rangers. And he didn't think the two would-be snipers were anything more than that. And likely they were all that Silver Mallow intended to do. Why would he challenge an entire town?
"Aye. Their hosses be out back. Ye be goin' back to the jail an' I'll strap 'em on an' send back a message to Silver." Kileen surveyed the room. "Me thinks we should clean up the store, too."
He strolled over to the spilled cigars, put half of them back in the display box, and shoved a fistful into his inside coat pocket. Carlow glimpsed the sprawled canes and walked over to return them to their place of honor. He was picking up the lone umbrella when he heard it. Heavy footsteps outside pounded both Rangers into a tense alert. Carlow's hand-carbine jumped into his hand and the umbrella fell again; Kileen dropped to one knee with his rifle readied.
Copyright © 2004 by Cotton Smith
The Thirteenth Bullet
Young Irishman Time Carlow couldn't be more proud to be a Texas Ranger, riding with his uncle Kileen, a former bare-knuckle boxer. After Kileen, Carlow, and his best friend break up a vicious Texas gang, they bring their captives to the town where Carlow grew up. But hatred of the Irish runs deep, and the town's mayor and sheriff betray them. The outlaws escape, wounding Carlow and killing his lifelong friend.
Carlow is devastated, for he had sworn an ancient Irish blood-oath with the dead man -- symbolized by the stones they always carried. Consumed by vengeance, Carlow rides off in a fury, throwing away both the stones and his Ranger's star. Returning to the hometown that had always resented him -- and ultimately betrayed him -- he is out for blood. And even his icy cool demeanor cannot quench his burning desire for revenge....