I swung out of the saddle and kneeled beside the man’s body. Kennedy had been shot three times, once by me, and twice more by a person—or persons—unknown. One shot had merely grazed his neck, but the second, deadlier bullet had crashed smack into the middle of his forehead.

Clem Kennedy was an ill-natured man who had made his share of enemies. But why kill him all the way out here, in the middle of nowhere in a pounding rainstorm?

Unless . . .

Had his killer heard the gunshots from back at the cave and believed Kennedy had already robbed me of the money I was carrying? That was a real possibility. And since the bushwhacker hadn’t found the saddlebags on Kennedy’s horse, he must know I still had them.

I held my Winchester in both hands at the high port as I prepared to walk back to my paint, the hairs at the back of my neck rising.

Was the killer still here? And was I already in his sights?

I had no time to answer that question . . . because I’d not taken three steps when the sky fell on me.


This is respectfully dedicated to the “American Cowboy.” His was the saga sparked by the turmoil that followed the Civil War, and the passing of more than a century has by no means diminished the flame.

True, the old days and the old ways are but treasured memories, and the old trails have grown dim with the ravages of time, but the spirit of the cowboy lives on.

In my travels—to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona—I always find something that reminds me of the Old West. While I am walking these plains and mountains for the first time, there is this feeling that a part of me is eternal, that I have known these old trails before. I believe it is the undying spirit of the frontier calling, allowing me, through the mind’s eye, to step back into time. What is the appeal of the Old West of the American frontier?

It has been epitomized by some as the dark and bloody period in American history. Its heroes—Crockett, Bowie, Hickok, Earp—have been reviled and criticized. Yet the Old West lives on, larger than life.

It has become a symbol of freedom, when there was always another mountain to climb and another river to cross; when a dispute between two men was settled not with expensive lawyers, but with fists, knives, or guns. Barbaric? Maybe. But some things never change. When the cowboy rode into the pages of American history, he left behind a legacy that lives within the hearts of us all.

Ralph Compton

Chapter 1

I had thirty thousand dollars in paper money and gold coin in my saddlebags and now the rain had settled the dust on my back trail that had been nagging at me for the past two days.

Maybe the dust meant nothing.

It could have been kicked up by a puncher like me, heading back to Texas broke and hungover, vowing never to come up the trail again and wishing mightily he’d steered well clear of the bright lights and easy sin of Dodge.

But dust could mean something else.

It could mean I was dancing with the devil and they were playing his tune.

Me, I was eighteen years old that summer of 1880 and still kind of green, even though I’d been up the trail three times. I had twice tangled with Comanche and once, the spring before, had shot it out with three rustlers south of the Washita.

After the smoke cleared, big Bob Collins, the trail boss, had slapped me on the back and said I’d done good, though I doubted that I’d hit anybody, being no great shakes with the long gun, though I’m a fair to middling hand with the Colt.

But that was then, and this was now.

Since I’d crossed the Cimarron and ridden into the Indian territory, I’d tried not to pay any mind to the dust. I’d been a-singing to my pony, mostly sappy love songs that I’d heard in Dodge and a dozen other cow towns. The paint didn’t like my singing none, shaking his head, his bit jangling, every time I murdered a high note.

But having such a disapproving audience didn’t bother me, on account I knew I’d soon be seeing my best gal again. Sally Coleman, with her blond hair and blue eyes, lived on her pa’s ranch about a hundred miles south of the Red. A gal as pretty as Sally had her choice of men, but it was in my mind that I’d marry her someday and raise up a passel of kids with her.

Hanging on my saddle horn, covered up by my slicker, was a straw bonnet, all tied around with blue ribbons, that I’d bought for Sally in Dodge. That bonnet cost me a week’s wages, but I reckoned just to see her wear it would be worth the money, and then some.

Before the rain started, I could tell that the dust behind me was a ways off and not getting any closer.

But now there was nothing to see and I was fast becoming uneasy.

It was no secret in Dodge that I’d ridden out of town with thirty thousand dollars. That was money enough to tempt a man, especially the shifty border trash, gamblers, dance hall loungers, goldbrick artists and the like, who migrated north with the herds every spring to Dodge and Caldwell and Wichita, eager to separate a drover from his hard-earned wages.

And there were others, much more dangerous, dry, hard-eyed men who wore their guns like they were born to them, lean riders who haunted moon-shadowed trails and never looked at a thing directly, but saw everything. When such men went to the gun, they were almighty sudden and certain and I wanted no part of them.

Was it men like those who rode behind me?

When you’re eighteen, you figure you can’t be killed. I’d seen plenty of dying on the Western Trail: punchers trampled in stampedes, drowned in river crossings, snakebit, dragged by runaway ponies. But death always chose some other poor feller and seemed content to tiptoe around me.

But now I couldn’t shake the feeling that danger was dogging my trail and maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t as immortal as I thought. Being eighteen doesn’t make a man bulletproof, and, looking back, I realize them’s words of wisdom.

The rain had started that morning just after sunup, driven by a gusting south wind that hammered cold drops against my slicker and drummed on my hat.

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