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STEEL TRAILS OF VENGEANCE

by Ray Tassin

Avalon Books 1961

CHAPTER ONE

Numerous small groups of people clustered along the dusty main street of Richfield as Jeff Danner guided his weary horse across the plank bridge at the east edge of town. Ahead of him rode his two prisoners—Ears Dooley, comically giant ears protruding from a narrow head, and rotund Sam Dooley, brothers unalike except for vicious dispositions. Sam slouched shapelessly with the gentle gait of his tired mount, but Ears held his scrawny back rigidly straight in the saddle to show the gaping spectators his defiance.

Danner shook off the weariness that gripped him, thankful that the bright morning sun beat against his back instead of into his eyes. With the back of his hand he scrubbed a week's beard stubble.

The Dooleys looked neither right nor left as they passed the first of the spectators. Hostility weighed heavily in the air, only a small portion of it aimed at the two prisoners. Only a few—a very few—of the onlookers favored Danner with anything resembling friendliness.

The five hundred yards still to be traveled to the courthouse seemed interminable to Danner. Not a sound came from the dozen or so punchers grouped in front of the Longhorn Saloon. Danner forced himself to remain loose in the saddle, outwardly oblivious to the malevolent stares beating against him. Then a high-pitched voice sliced the air, seeming to echo off the store fronts.

'Haven't you done enough to the Dooley family?'

'Yeah,' came another voice, 'you're the one who belongs in jail.'

Danner felt a tightness in his chest, but he continued to stare indifferently at the backs of his slowly moving prisoners.

At the center-of-town intersection a low mutter reached Danner from a mixed group of townsmen, punchers and farmers. A burly puncher Danner recognized as Garr Green stepped out from the group and into the street. As the prisoners rode by, Green winked broadly at them, grinning wickedly. Then Danner drew near and Green spat suggestively into the dust. Danner reined sharply to the left as if to run him down. Green jumped back quickly, his wide mouth losing its grin. For the next twenty yards Danner felt an itching between his shoulder blades. It seemed like a long way to the courthouse.

Near the west end of the main street Danner kicked his horse into a trot, closing the gap until he rode just behind his prisoners. To his right sprawled the shops, roundhouse, depot and headquarters buildings of the Richfield Railroad. On his left and back a little from the street, the red brick courthouse stood alone. Fully two dozen men, mostly riders and townsmen, lined the walk leading to the front steps, waiting.

Ears Dooley dismounted first. Danner waited until Sam stepped to the ground before quitting his horse. With a jerk of his head Danner sent the Dooleys along the walk. Sheriff Dan Brant waited for them in the doorway. Not a sound came from the crowd until Danner reached the steps.

'What happened, big man? Did your gun jam?'

Danner turned toward the sound of the voice. He glanced over faces made ugly by hate, feeling the weight of a silence broken only by the barking of a dog somewhere in the distance. A gust of wind rolled a tumbleweed down the walk and against the steps.

The group on the west side of the walk separated then, and Ben Tuso swaggered out, poised for trouble. His swarthy face missed a crude handsomeness by the margin of a broad and flat nose crowding against small black and shining eyes. Though short of stature and an indeterminate age, he fancied himself a ladies' man, which accounted for his flashy black clothes and silvered six-gun. His lone virtue—a complete lack of physical fear—added arrogance to his stance.

'I asked you a question, big man.' Tuso grinned as he spoke. 'Why bring 'em in alive? Why didn't you just shoot 'em in the back like you did their brothers?'

Several nods ran through the crowd, accompanied by low muttering.

Swift anger prodded Danner. He held his gun hand near his holstered Colts. Tuso burned with a little man's need to prove himself as tough as the biggest of men. Danner used that weakness now to goad the cocky gunman.

'Your back isn't turned, runt. Want to try your luck?'

A bright flame of fury darkened Tuso's swarthiness, but his mouth didn't lose its grin—nor did the eyes lose their eager shine. Silently the adversaries pitted their wills, a little man who lived for trouble, a bigger man who accepted trouble in order to live. Danner waited, building pressure against Tuso with an unrelenting stare. Tuso wanted a fight—felt no fear at the prospect—yet he held back, unsure of something. Then a voice rumbled in from the street—a voice like a roll of thunder, uttering a single word.

'Tuso.'

Danner hadn't noticed the buggy pull up near the group. Now he looked closely at the four-hundred-pound hulk of Alec Browder spilling out over the leather-covered seat. Although he owned Richfield's only granary and stockyards, Browder remained a seldom seen, almost legendary figure. Some said he had once killed two men by crushing them against each other. The vast expanse between his shoulders seemed capable of such power. When he spoke his voice came from the lowest depths of his vast belly.

'I've got a chore for you, Tuso,' Browder rumbled, squinting through thick-lensed glasses at his hired gun.

Tuso looked around at Browder, and again at Danner, indecision replacing his humorless grin. Finally he nodded reluctantly, without taking his eyes off Danner.

'Some other time, big man,' Tuso said derisively. Then he spun around and swaggered off.

Tension eased out of Danner. With a final glance around the crowd, he turned into the courthouse hallway, then into the sheriff's office. The Dooleys sprawled in chairs near the cell block door. Sheriff Dan Brant stood waiting, key ring in his hand.

'Hello, Jeff,' the old sheriff greeted.

Danner nodded.

'See you got 'em.' Brant pulled open the door leading into the cell block. 'You ready for me to lock them up, or do you want to question them first?'

'No,' Danner shook his head. 'I've already tried that, without results. Just lock them up for now.'

The sheriff waved the prisoners into the cell block. Ears Dooley went first, his thin frame beginning to shake with repressed hatred and anger—and perhaps fear. Sam Dooley waddled along behind his brother, his fleshy face inscrutable as usual. Always ragged and unkempt, the two showed the additional wear of the prairie pursuit and return.

The ring of keys clinked as the sheriff fell in behind Danner. When they reached the maximum security cell, Danner unlocked the handcuffs from both prisoners, then shoved Ears through the open cell door, ignoring a string of vicious oaths. Sam waddled into the cell unassisted and without a word or glance. But Ears continued to rage.

'I'll kill you for this, Danner.'

Danner ignored him, while Sheriff Brant fumbled his key ring. Then the sheriff inserted the key in one of the two locks and the bolt clicked into place. He removed the key from the ring and handed it to Danner, then started searching for the key to the second lock—a key which would remain in his possession.

Ears came to the bars and stuck his pointed chin through. 'This stinking jail won't hold me for long, Danner,' he spat out. 'Then I'll come looking for you.'

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