Western Wednesdays—DEATH MASK

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…

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Editorial and Web Coordinator

 CHAPTER 1

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.

“Everything will be fine, folks,” Carlow said. “Just stay inside.”

A woman saw Chance and whimpered, “My God, that’s a wolf, Jacob! A wolf.”

Acting like he hadn’t heard, Carlow headed for the hotel front door.

The frightened woman’s husband shushed her and guided her toward the far end of the lobby.

“How do you want to play this, Thunder?” Carlow asked, already knowing the answer. He always referred to his uncle by his nickname, earned years ago as a bare-knuckle prizefighter back east. His fellow Rangers called him “Old Thunder,” but not to his face.

 “Wait. We must let them do the dastardly deed, then we arrest the blaggards. Be lookin’ for their gang.” Kileen was breathing hard from their rapid descent. “I be hopin’ Tanneman has not dreamed of our plan.”

Ignoring the comment, Carlow opened the door a crack, enough so they could see the street and the two riders pulling alongside the bank’s hitching rack.    

He couldn’t help worrying about his young nephew. He shouldn’t have, though; Time Carlow could handle himself as few could. But he worried anyway. The big Irishman was uneasy.

“What about Pig and Mirabile?” Carlow asked.

“Be waiting for us, they be.” The big Irishman spoke with more confidence than he felt.

That was the plan, but Pig Deconer was young, like Carlow, and might choose to adance too soon. Captain McNelly had sent the four of them because he wasn’t certain whether or not there were additional gang members. Rumors were that there was a whole gang.

Kileen was distracted by a young woman carrying a baby and walking along the planked sidewalk in front of them. Silently he hoped the child had been lifted high on a chair after its birth, or carried upstairs, to assure success in this world. His nephew had. For a moment, he considered going outside to ask the woman. He told himself to concentrate, but found himself wondering if Tanneman could transform himself into another creature.

Hadn’t he read somewhere that some ancient shamans had such abilities?

Across the street, Tanneman Rose, wearing a fake beard, went into the bank. He nodded at the exiting businessman and quietly took his place at the teller window, behind a tall woman and a short man making a deposit. Hillis Rose, also wearing a fake beard, remained mounted, holding the reins of his brother’s horse. Their other two brothers,Portlandand Barnabas, had come to town earlier; they were out of sight and would stay that way, unless necessary. They, too, carried fake beards in their pockets.

The brothers had done this five times already. Successfully. Only once had the other two brothers needed to join in, shooting down a marshal and wounding some townsmen. The trick was to do it calmly. Not give anyone a reason to panic—or do something foolish. Just as importantly, Tanneman had kept the money hidden. None of them knew where. Of course, he had doled out spending money, but that was it.

Tanneman chuckled to himself; it had been a perfect system. As usual, he would ride back into town without his brother, present himself as a Ranger and offer to help find the bank robbers. Of course, he would shed his beard and long coat and change hats before doing so. The other step was to arrest some poor bastard for the deed. It was so easy. It was theater, his one great love.

All four of the Rose brothers were tall and a little on the thin side. Tanneman and Hillis were clean-shaven with thick light brown hair pouring out from under their hats. Hillis wore long sideburns that covered too much of his face. Tanneman was definitely fiercer and far smarter; his catlike face was a permanent scowl. Ice-blue eyes looked at others from somewhere beyond eternity.

At times, it seemed Hillis simply went along to please his older brother. Tanneman had told him that Hillis had also lived a previous life, as a Roman soldier. So had the other two brothers; Tanneman thoughtPortlandhad been a Navajo chief and Barnabas had been a Chinese trader. Only Barnabas ever talked about Tanneman’s ideas. Tanneman tugged on the brim of his hat and lowered his eyes. Never look a teller in the eyes, he reminded himself. He couldn’t help letting the remnants of last night’s dream creep into his mind. Dreams were important messages. Advance looks at the future, if one heeded them well. In last night’s dream Ranger Kileen had led a hundred Rangers into Tanneman’s house. They came from every direction, through windows, through closed doors, even through the ceiling itself.

He shook his head and the dream fragments rattled away. Maybe it meant they were on to him. That was the difficult part about dreams, he knew. Interpreting them correctly could be difficult. He had watched the town for signs of Rangers when they came in. He shook his head to clear it; now was not the time. Later, he would assemble a proper ceremony and learn from the other world. As he had done hundreds of years before.

For now, he touched the necklace of jaguar teeth he wore under his shirt. It was a necklace, from a Mexican peddler, to remind him of his earlier life. So far, the gold and certificates from the other bank holdups had been carefully hidden. Tanneman’s initial plan was to rob ten banks in three years, then quit forever. It was a good plan, not too greedy. Maybe the dream meant the Rangers would soon discover his actions. Maybe.

The short man finished and turned around, mumbling to himself. He almost ran into Tanneman.

“Sorry, I’m in the way,” Tanneman said, stepping to the side.

“Sure. Sure,” the smaller man said, and left the bank.

Ahead of Tanneman, the woman completed her transaction, spun and headed out. He half turned to watch her leave. It gave him the opportunity to pull his neckerchief over his nose and draw his weapon.

“May I help you, sir?” Without looking up, the teller’s voice was reedy and laced with self-importance and a continuous sniffing.

“I’d say you can.” Tanneman spun around, a long-barreled revolver in his right hand and empty saddlebags in the other. “I need all your money, and I need it now. My gang’s outside. Hidden. If there’s a shot, they’ll come shooting.”

The teller turned white and held up his hands. His nose honked and snorted.

From the corner of his eyes, Tanneman Rose saw the bank’s vice president stiffen at his desk.

“Don’t be a fool, mister.” Tanneman waved his gun at the officer.

Minutes later, Tanneman exited the bank with filled saddlebags over his shoulder and saw four Rangers running toward them. A few feet behind was what appeared to be a wolf. Deconer had a fried chicken drumstick in his left hand and a Colt revolver in his right.

Hillis was as surprised by their sudden appearance as Tanneman was. He spun in the saddle and fired hisWinchester. Ranger Deconer groaned and stumbled. Both his drumstick and gun plopped onto the street. Only a few steps behind, Mirabile swung his Sharps in the direction of Hillis, and the big gun roared.

From the middle of the street, Kileen fired at almost the same moment. The younger Rose brother jerked sideways and toppled over. His rifle slid across the uneven street.

Holding his hand carbine in his right fist, Carlow never took his eyes off of Tanneman while the other Rangers fired at Hillis.

Tanneman sneered, but didn’t want to test the young Ranger. He’d seen him in action. He lowered his gun, yanking down the neckerchief with his other hand.

“Glad you’re here, boys. We were told the bank was being robbed,” he said. “I’ve got the bank money here.” He patted the saddlebags. “For safekeeping.” He looked around. “I’m guessing we were given a false alarm. Haven’t seen any robbers. But it pays to be careful.” He tugged at the false beard, pulling it from his face. “That’s why we put these on.”

“Drop the gun, Tanneman,” Carlow pointed with his hand carbine. “You’re under arrest.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course you do. Drop it now.”

Slowly, Tanneman knelt and laid his gun, beard and the saddlebags on the ground. As he leaned over, a necklace made of jaguar teeth dangled from his shirt. He stood and held up his hands. But as his arms moved upward, he made a hand movement like he was pushing something away. A message? To someone across the street? The young Ranger wheeled to look. He saw only three frightened townsmen.

 “That’s a good lad, Tanneman,” Kileen said. “No time we be havin’ for the wafflin’.”

“Wait a minute, boys.” Tanneman glanced at Hillis, who wasn’t moving. “You’ve got this wrong, boys. We thought the bank was being robbed.”

“It was. By you.” Carlow stepped closer.

“What? That’s silly.” Tanneman looked at Kileen. “Thunder, tell your nephew here we’re Rangers, not crooks.”

“Mirabile, check on Pig.” Kileen motioned with his gun. “Be hopin’ the lad’s not hurt bad, Tanneman.”

“I-I’m hit, Th-Thunder. I-I’m b-bleeding bad. My leg.”

Mirabile knelt beside Deconer, trying to calm him, using his kerchief to stop the blood oozing from the man’s thigh.

Tanneman motioned toward the downed Ranger. “Hillis thought you were the robbers. We were told the bank was being robbed.”

Not interested in pursuing Tanneman’s alibi further, Carlow started to say something, but deferred to the big Irishman. Kileen’s missing-teeth smile was like a jack-o-lantern’s, but Carlow had long ago overlooked that image. This man was more like a father, a battle-savvy warrior of a father.

Shaking his head, the big Irishman laughed out loud. “Well, ’tis a grand day for blarney, it be. As thick as meself can ever recall.”

Carlow was proud of him for making a stand against Tanneman. He knew it wasn’t easy.

Tanneman Rose turned toward Kileen, his eyes flashing. “I thought you were my friend. We shared dreams. And things of the past. But you’ve killed my brother. You’ll be sorry about this.”

“Aye. All who wear the proud badge of a Texas Ranger be sorry. About ye and Hillis,” Kileen said. “Ye have disgraced the fine brotherhood we be.” The big Irishman looked around the street. “An’ where be your fellow outlaws, Tanneman? Go easier on ye, it will, if ye be cooperatin’.”

Tanneman bit his lower lip and took several steps forward. His voice was barely a whisper. “Look. I’ll make a deal with you. Let me ride out of here. One of you can take the saddlebags and all of you can follow after me. Shooting and hollering. This piss-ant town is too scared to know the difference. Once we get away from here, I’ll keep going and you can split the money. There’s a lot in there.”

Without waiting for his uncle’s response, Carlow took three quick steps toward Tanneman, who was smiling. With his hand carbine at his side, Carlow’s left fist exploded into the evil Ranger’s face and blood burst in all directions. Tanneman staggered backward and Carlow hit him again, this time in the stomach.

Groaning, Tanneman grabbed for the hot pain with both hands.

“How dare you suggest we’re on your level, Rose, you bastard.” Carlow pulled back his fist for another blow.

Behind him, Kileen said gently, “No, me son. That not be the way.”

Carlow dropped his fist and stepped away.

Kileen rushed past him, muttering, “This be the way.” His own right fist slammed against Tanneman’s chin and the man flew into the air. The huge man stood over the unconscious outlaw Ranger and shook his fist.

“Be sendin’ ye back to Persia, I be. Ye have blackened the fine name o’ the Rangers. Blast ye, Tanneman Rose.”

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