August 31, 2011 Leave a comment
Lawmen are a popular archetype in almost any medium—film, television, literature—regardless of genre, setting, or time period. They tend to be hard men who’ve led hard lives and find themselves constantly having to walk a very fine line between working within the limits of the law and catching the bad guy. In Death Mask, Cotton Smith explores that dynamic. Not only is the hero a lawman, but the villain as well. What happens when a good man crosses that line? You’re about to find out…
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Texas Ranger Aaron “Thunder” Kileen rose in one smooth motion, belying his huge size. “Here they be comin’. Beards they be wearin’ to mask their treacherous souls. Aye, an’ fine hosses they be ridin’. Like always.”
He pointed from the second-story window of the San Antonio hotel where he and his Ranger nephew had been waiting.
“Where?” Ranger Time Carlow scrambled to his feet, pushing aside the fuzziness of rereading his last letter from Ellie Beckham. He’d read it at least ten times.
He had met the young widow three years ago in his hometown. The rest of her letters were carefully folded in his saddlebags. He hadn’t written as often; the last had been six months ago, he thought. Another unsent letter was still in his gear. Somewhere.
“Pulling up in front of the bank, they be. Do ye see?”
“Yeah, I see them. Let’s get the bastards.”
Sweet thoughts of Ellie were pushed into the corner of Carlow’s mind for later. He shoved his chair away and yanked on the permanently pushed-up brim of his Stetson in the same motion. Long dark hair danced along his shoulders. A trim mustache and expressive eyebrows reinforced his combative appearance—and nature. 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 superstitious Kileen grabbed his Henry rifle and headed for the door. He glanced at the lone candle on the dresser. It had gone out. That meant someone would die.
Shaking off his shiver, he said, “Be rememberin’, me son. Captain wants them alive. ’Tis the best chance of gettin’ back the money they be stealin’.”
“Let’s hope they got the same report.” Carlow grinned, a step behind him. “Shall we put on our badges?”
“Aye. There might be more, so be keepin’ your attention. Some be sayin’ there be a gang.” The big Irish Ranger waved his huge paw of a right hand, scarred from many past fistfights.
His ruddy face was weary from waiting. A former bare-knuckle prizefighter, the highly superstitious lawman was dressed, as usual, in a well-worn three-piece tweed suit. He thought it made him look like a gentleman; no Ranger dared comment otherwise. The material and buttons had fought a long and losing battle with his thick chest and arms. He looked even bigger in his dust-laden, high-crowned black hat. An old bullet hole in the upper crease had long since been forgotten. Across his coat was a heavy bullet belt with holstered Colt and sheathed Bowie knife.
As he moved, the big Irishman felt in his coat pocket for his own badge, reaching past an acorn and a tiny pouch of dirt from Ireland itself, a small token of the green isle that his late sister—Carlow’s mother—had brought with her to the new land. It, too, held great powers, he had decided. Carlow had a smilar pouch, but he kept it in his saddlebags. At least, it had been there the last time Kileen had looked.
Stopping, Kileen yanked free his badge and pushed it onto his coat lapel as he moved.
Hurrying from the room, Carlow reached into one vest pocket, then the other, to find the star placed there among extra cartridges, pieces of hard candy, a silver watch and chain, an acorn given to him by Kileen for luck, and two tiny flat stones, darkly stained with long-ago blood, a memory possession. He pinned the badge on his coat lapel without slowing down.
His hand dropped to the guns at his waist. From his right hip, he drew a special cut-downWinchester, shortened in stock and barrel, and cocked it easily with the enlarged circular lever. It was worn as a handgun in an unusual holster of rawhide bands and thick leather backing tied to his leg. The weapon provided the quick handling of a revolver with the impact of a rifle. On the shortened walnut stock was carved a Celtic marking, an ancient war symbol for victory.
He carried a short-barreled Colt on the left side of his gunbelt; its walnut handle tilted forward for a right-handed draw.
At the doorway, Kileen tapped the wood frame three times with his rifle. For luck. Carlow smiled; he didn’t agree with his uncle’s superstitions. Carlow turned toward the far wall where his wolf-dog companion, Chance, waited for direction. Carlow had sneaked him in and out of the hotel.
“Come on, Chance, we’ve got work to do.”
The great beast barked and was beside him in an instant.
Together, the threesome charged down the stairs of the Gleason Hotel, across the street from the First National Bank. In the restaurant next to the bank waited two more Rangers, Julian Mirabile and Pig Deconer. The younger of the two lawmen, Pig Deconer had insisted on eating while they waited. Food was his great passion.
Carlow took the lead, bounding down two steps at a time. Two eagle pinfeathers, dangling from the top of his Kiowa leggings, responded to the movement and fluttered their understanding. Large-roweled Mexican spurs sang their own reaction. Jiggling in rhythm was the bone handle of a Comanche war knife, barely visible above the right legging.
At the base of the stairway, a startled businessman watched them advance, unsure of what he should do.
“Step aside, like a good fellow. ’Tis Ranger business ye be watchin’,” Kileen bellowed. His thick mustache was graying, but the rest of him spoke of a massive fighting man. His nose had been broken twice and his ears were definitely cauliflowered.
The businessman gladly moved away, bringing his hand to his mouth in fascination.
The Rangers had been in town for two days, posing as cattlemen so no townsman would inadvertently warn the bank robbers or do something foolish. It was an unusual assignment and an unusually high number of Rangers were involved. Fellow Rangers—Tanneman Rose and his younger brother, Hillis—were expected to make an attempt to rob the bank, as they had apparently held up five others over the past two years.
Kileen had been reluctant to accept the responsibility. Tanneman was certain he had lived a previous life as a gifted shaman inPersiamany centuries ago. That made the superstitious Irishman uneasy.
“Come on, Chance. We’ve got a Persian shaman to arrest,” Carlow called over his shoulder and grinned again. It was an easy, confident smile that said everything was going to be all right. It was a smile Kileen loved to see, even when he knew it wasn’t always so.
“Be ye rememberin’ Tanneman Rose be a dreamer,” Kileen cautioned as he stutter-stepped and almost lost his balance. “He be seein’ the future, he be.” Kileen steadied himself with his outstretched left arm against the wall. His rifle remained in his right fist at his side. To himself, he muttered, “’Tis the comin’ again to this earth that does it. Friend of the black spider he be.” The grizzly bear of a man who was Kileen growled to the young man he had raised into a fine Ranger.
The discovery of criminals in their special ranks had the four state lawmen on edge. Especially Kileen. Reincarnation was something mystical, something beyond the mind’s ability to comprehend. He wished this confrontation could be avoided. Still, an order was an order and he intended to follow out the captain’s wishes.
Carlow had no problem with the task. First, he didn’t believe in reincarnation. Second, he had never liked the Rose brothers. Never trusted them. He couldn’t tell why he felt that way, only that he did. Now his feelings were about to be proven correct. He was also worried about how the brothers would react to being arrested. Tanneman Rose was cruel as well as accurate with any weapon. Carlow had seen him shoot down surrendered outlaws, simply because he didn’t want to be troubled with taking them to the nearest settlement. His younger brother tried too hard to make Tanneman proud of him. That, too often, meant similar violence.
The Rangers and the wolf-dog hit the lobby floor and became aware, for the first time, that a handful of people in the lobby were watching them. The customers’ faces were a mixture of fascination and fear.