Western Wednesdays—SHOWDOWN AT JUNIPER PASS by Kent Conwell

Kent Conwell’s enigmatic hero Jake Slade is a character that has resonated with readers from his first appearance on the page in Chimney of Gold. Slade’s journey has always been one close to the hearts of readers as he’s fought to avenge the family he lost and to keep hold of the family he’s made. Showdown at Juniper Pass brings us the next chapter in the Jake Slade saga. Dealing with loss once again, Slade struggles to honor his fallen brother while fighting for his own life and the lives of the innocent in a quiet mountain town faced with its own mortality. This two chapter excerpt sets the stage for an epic battle of wills in Showdown at Juniper Pass.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter 1

Slade had no choice. The young half-breed tightened his cinch and swung into the saddle, bound for the Texas Panhandle. The snow had fallen all night, a light breeze pushing it into gentle drifts.

Leaving the thicket of piñon, he paused on the crest of a shale ridge for one final look down into the valley at the lump of snow impaled on the charred limb of a bristlecone pine, the body of his Apache brother, Nana. His vision blurred, and when he refocused his eyes on the pine, the body had vanished. Only a slender black limb stood out against the snow.

* * *

Slade jerked awake and stared into the darkness above. In one corner of his small adobe, embers blinked like wolf eyes in the chiminea.

Despite the chill of the winter night, sweat beaded his forehead. The same dream. Every night since his return from the high lonesome in New Mexico Territory, the same dream, but this night would be the last.

Today he would ride out of Tucson for that valley high in the Sangre de Cristos to bury his brother.

* * *

Two hours later, shortly before the sun rose over the Catalina Mountains to the east, Slade closed the freight office door behind him and filled a tin cup with six-shooter coffee. He plopped down on an empty cartridge case in front of the potbellied stove.

Cupping a steaming mug in his hands on the other side of the stove, Three-Fingers Bent rocked back in the straight back chair and grunted. “Damnation, Jake. I know you left Nana so you could get back to New Gideon to save my hide. I can’t never pay you back for that, so that’s why I don’t mind saying you got rocks for brains heading out in this kind of weather.” He cut his dark eyes to Bill Harnden, Slade’s partner in the stage and freight line. “Tell him what you told me, Bill,” Bent growled.

With a crooked grin, Slade glanced up at his old friend. “Yeah, Bill. Why don’t you tell me?”

Harnden, his bushy brows knit, studied the lean half-breed. “Hell, I understand what you’re doing. I’d do the same thing. But the fact is, we’re smack-dab in the middle of one of the worst winters in years. Second, you left a heap of bad blood behind you up there in them mountains. And third, which oughta be the most important thing to you right now, is the stage line. The new route from Fort Atkins onto El Pasois running smooth, but there’s only been half a dozen trips. Who’s going to handle it if something goes wrong?”

“Besides,” Bent put in, “them Utes is thicker’n seven cowboys on a cot up there. They’ll have your scalp before you get within ten miles of that valley.”

The wiry cowpoke ran his fingers through his close-cropped hair and, with the unperturbed aplomb of the Apache, studied his two friends with cool gray eyes. He knew they had his best interests in mind, but he also realized he could never explain to them the intensity of family loyalty within the Apache psyche. A knowing smile ticked up the sides of his lips. “I can’t argue with what you say. I know the weather’s bad, and I know there’s them up yonder who would sell their own mother for my hide. But that’s my brother up there.” He glanced at Bent. “I left him because I had no choice.”

He paused, sipped his coffee, and reached for the bag of Bull Durham. While he rolled a cigarette, he continued. “Now I got a choice. I go now because I got me a sentir perdido.” When Bent arched an eyebrow, Slade explained. “That’s Apache for a feeling of being lost. What you and me call a bad feeling. Not about me, but that Nana won’t be there. I can’t shake the sentir, but I can do something about it. As far as the stage line goes, you can run down any problems. We got good men at each of the way stations. Besides, I won’t be gone more than a month.”

Cantankerous as a ringy longhorn, Bent snorted. “If you’re so damned bound and determined to go up there, then I’m going with you.”

Bill Harnden shot a surprised look at Bent. Slade chuckled. “Forget it. Paleto’s going.”

Harnden frowned at Slade. “Your brother?”

“Yep.” He grinned sheepishly at Bent, who picked up the moniker Three‑Fingered Bent because of the loss of his thumb and forefinger in a game of chance between him and a band of White Mountain Apaches at a drunken party on the banks of the Gila River. He was a distant relative of the Bent brothers, William and George, who built the fort near the confluence of the Arkansas and Purgatory rivers in 1833, thirty-nine years earlier.

“In fact,” Slade continued, “I’m meeting him up in the Catalinas midmorning. Come nighttime, we ought to reach the Hayden spread at the edge of the Dripping Springs Mountains. By heading due east, we can avoid the heavy snows.”

Bent peered through the frosted windows at the brittle blue winter sky. “Well then, if I can’t change your mind, I reckon you’d best get a move on while the weather holds.” He flexed his left arm at the elbow two or three times. “My old bunk mate, arthritis, says we got us another cold spell coming in.”

* * *

The sun was a shimmering globe overhead when Slade gave the call of a whip-poor-will. Moments later, the coo of a dove drifted down the boulder-strewn slope of the Catalinas. His Apache brother, Paleto, rode out on a craggy slope high above.

Slade held up his right hand in front of his body, pointing the index finger at Paleto, then bringing the first two fingers to his lips, the Indian sign for “brother.”

With a faint smile in his eyes, Paleto returned the sign.

Slade reined up beside the wiry Apache who wore knee-high moccasins, leather leggings, and a fur-lined vest over a Yankee battle jacket. A bear-claw necklace hung from around his neck, his totem, his personal protector. A rolled bearskin was tied behind the cantle of his saddle. “You look well.”

His dark face impassive, Paleto nodded. “And you, brother.”

Gesturing to the north, Slade asked, “Ready?”

Paleto shook his head. “Your father wishes to visit with you.”

“Santos? But I thought he was in Mexico for the winter, down with Juh’s people.”

Nodding to the craggy peaks towering over them, Paleto replied, “He waits there for you.” He reined around. “Come.”

Slade started to protest, but Santos was his father, and the Apache son always obeyed his father. He would just have to ride harder to make up for the lost time.

Chapter 2

A few days earlier, five hundred miles to the northeast, Frank Tolliver sat at a sunlit table out of the wind in the La Plaza de los Leones, the Plaza of the Lions. He fixed his icy blue eyes on the ornately carved door of the El Club del Emperador, the Emperor’s Club, an exclusive watering hole for the aristocrats of Santa Fe.

A massive man, Tolliver was as cruel as he was cold-blooded. He had just ridden in. He was tired and dirty and so dry he couldn’t spit. 

When the door swung open and a nattily dressed man in an eastern business suit stepped out, Tolliver didn’t budge. He studied the man, who with a dour expression paused on the portico and surveyed the plaza. When the man’s eyes settled on Tolliver, a smug grin played over his pasty face.

He strode across the calle and into the plaza, stopping at the table. In a thin voice, he said, “Tolliver?”

The killer used his thumb to nudge his soiled black hat to the back of his head. “Maybe.”

Wingate looked around hastily, then slipped into a chair across the table. His eyes narrowed, and his thin voice grew cold. “I’m Edgar Wingate. I’m the one who sent you five hundred dollars to meet me here. Either you’re Frank Tolliver or you’re not.”

The testy impatience in the older man’s tone surprised the outlaw. He allowed a faint grin to play over his lips. He nodded. “I’m Tolliver.”

Satisfied, Wingate nodded. “Good. What would you say if I told you I would cut you in for a substantial share of a hundred-thousand-dollar deal?”

Tolliver pursed his lips and scratched the week-old beard on his iron jaw. “I’d want to know how substantial and who to kill.”

“Twenty thousand.”

A crooked grin twisted Tolliver’s lips. “Who do I kill?”

Wingate chuckled. “I want a town, Juniper Pass. About fifty miles due east of here near the Gallinas River. Maybe thirty people live there. That’s all. How you do it is up to you. I’d prefer no killing, but I want to own the entire valley. I’ll send good men in to help, but I want every last soul to sign their property rights over to me.” He pulled a thick wallet from inside his coat and counted out a stack of bills. He held them up. “Here’s two thousand. I don’t want you to do a thing until you hear from me. This should be enough to take care of your expenses until that time.”

“Own the valley. Why?”

“That’s my business,” Wingate replied sharply. Pulling the sheath of bills back, he pushed to his feet. “If you aren’t interested—”

“Hold on, hold on. I’m interested. When will I know to move ahead?”

“The last man I send will let you know.”

Tolliver studied the older man several minutes before taking the proffered money. As he counted through it, he asked, “Why don’t you buy it yourself?”

Wingate’s eyes narrowed. “I tried. I failed. That’s why you’re here. I’ve been told you never fail. That your methods—well—they work.”

A smug grin curled the rugged gunfighter’s lips. A sense of satisfaction washed over him. “You been told right.” He paused and eyed the muttonchop beard on the older man’s flabby jowls, figuring himself lucky for now he had a nice cozy hideout for the winter away from snooping territorial lawmen. Besides, if the deal proved profitable, he might even change his name and live out his life in New York City.

* * *

Santos looked up from the dancing flames illumining the small chamber when Paleto and Slade entered. Venison broiled on spits and a brightly painted olla containing mescal sat at Santos’s side.

The old Apache, his black hair parted in the middle and held in place with a bright red headband, grunted and nodded to the far side of the small fire. Slade unbuttoned his heavy mackinaw and sat. Paleto squatted beside him.

“My father is far from his winter home.”

Santos gave the remark an almost imperceptible nod. “I come when your brother tells me you journey to the north.”

The wiry half-breed kept his eyes fixed on the older man. “That is true.”

For several moments, Santos studied him, his eyebrows twisted into a frown, his thin lips drawn tight, ticked down at the edges. He reached for the olla of mescal and took a long drink, then handed it to Paleto. Without a word, the Apache warrior drank from the olla and handed it to Slade, who drank also.

Santos sliced broiled venison strips and, using the point of his knife, handed one to each of his sons. As he did, he said, “Nana, my son, your brother, is dead. I am an old man. Your mother, Big Calf, she grows old.” He paused and a sheepish smile cracked the impassive mask that covered his swarthy face. “She would beat me with a stick if she knew I said such.”

Slade and Paleto smiled, both painfully remembering the welts on their backs as a result of their mother’s skill and talent with the stick.

Santos once again grew serious. His black eyes searched those of his two sons. “We are too old to lose another son. Perhaps both. And you are our son although Nez Perce blood flows through your veins.” He paused and, with a faint gleam of reproach in his eye, added, “Besides, with no sons or grandsons, who will look after us when the winter of our lives begins to fill with the snow?”

Slade glanced at his brother. “I thought by now, Paleto would have given you some grandsons.”

Paleto jabbed his elbow into Slade’s ribs, and the two laughed.

Santos continued. “Two moons will have crossed the sky by the time you return. Nana was a true Human Being. Whether he is placed in the ground and thrown to the winds makes no difference, for he is with the Creator, who made the Tarantula, the Big Dipper, the Wind, and the Lightning-Maker and commanded them to build the Earth.”

Slade nodded briefly, remembering clearly the Apache version of the creation of the earth. True, Nana would be in the presence of the Creator, but without ritual burial, he would never enjoy the beauty and peace of the World Beyond.

The older man continued, his dark eyes fixed on Slade’s. “While I could find the strength to continue, I do not believe your mother could if another son was taken from her. Because of her, I ask of my son that he remain here.” He parted his lips to say more, but then slowly closed them, but his eyes remained on the younger man.

Well aware of the loss of pride it cost his father to ask the question, Slade winced as the tiny flames flickered across his father’s eyes, revealing the old man’s anguish, and the truth, the truth Santos as an Apache warrior could not admit.

Slade smiled reassuringly. “Tell my mother, I do what an Apache must.” He looked deep into his father’s eyes. “I do what you, my father, would do.  I can do no other.” He paused, then added, “I do not want to go against your wishes, but, can you not see, I am on a divided road? One is Apache honor, the other, disgrace.”

Santos studied his son a few moments, then nodded. Without a word, he jabbed his knife into another strip of venison and handed it to Slade. “Eat. You must maintain your strength.” He shot Paleto a disgusted look. “And try to keep this rabbit from killing himself,” he added with a grin.

* * *

It was midafternoon by the time the two brothers descended the mountain and set out due east across the Arizona desert of spiny ocotillos, spreading Palo Verdes, stark ironwoods, and the candelabra-armed saguaros.

Slade’s pony was a deep-chested dun with plenty of staying power. Paleto rode a smaller pony, a piebald he had freed from a white man’s corral.

The sky remained clear until just before sunset, and then to the northwest, a line of dark clouds appeared over the horizon. Ahead, the tree-lined banks of the San Pedro River pushed over the horizon.

Slade gestured and shouted above the pounding of their ponies’ hooves, “I know of a snug spot for the night. Good graze for the horses.”

* * *

Their camp was in a wash just inside a thick bosque of cottonwoods lining the river. The arroyo was deep enough so a small fire beneath the cutbank would go unseen.

Quickly, the two men settled in, Slade readying a meal of venison and flour cakes while Paleto tended the ponies.

The wind picked up and the temperatures began to fall. “Cold tomorrow,” Slade muttered, lying back on his soogan and peering at the bright moon against the dark sky. He chewed on his venison.

Paleto grunted. “Little snow. We make good time.”

Suddenly a horse whinnied and startled shouts came from the river.

Instantly, Slade kicked out the fire and shucked the big Colt on his hip. Paleto came to stand at his side, both listening to the excited cries in the darkness.

As one, they vanished into the moonlit night, ghosting through the cottonwood to the willows lining the shore. They paused, looking on as two ponies struggled ashore, leaving their riders fighting the churning water in a desperate effort to keep from being swept into the swift water below.

Upon reaching shore, one of the ponies stumbled, then gained his feet and crashed through the willows. Slade reacted instantly, leaping for the bridle and ripping the lariat from a pigging string.

Quickly, he raced downstream, then waded into the water and swung the rope overhead, building a larger loop with each swing. When the first figure was within fifty feet, he released the rope.

A grin played over his lips as the loop settled over the man’s shoulders. He jerked it tight. The man looked around, and Slade realized he had roped an Indian.

He didn’t have time to think, for at that moment, the rushing current swept the second Indian into the rope, almost pulling Slade into the river with them.

Clenching his teeth, he dug his heels into the graveled river bottom. His wiry muscles strained as he fought against the inexorable pull of the violent current. His heels began to slip. He groaned and pulled hard. Then behind him, he felt Paleto grab the rope. Together, they held their ground as the current swept the two toward shore.

As the two bedraggled Indians crawled up on the graveled shoreline, a third raced up on a pinto. He slid to a halt when he spotted Slade.

Paleto grunted. “I Mimbre.”

The Indian eyed Slade warily. He touched a finger to his leather-clad chest. “Soy Chiquito, del Tindi.” (“I am Chiquito, of the Tindi.”)

The Tindi, the name of the Lipan-Apache.

Paleto grunted and nodded to Slade. “Busca. I am Paleto, son of Santos, as is my brother here.”

Chiquito nodded. “Ah, Busca. The One-Who-Seeks. I have heard of you.”

Slade nodded. “Chiquito. Of the Tindi.”

Chiquito grunted. He nodded to the two soaked Apaches Slade had dragged ashore. “That one is Flacco. The other, Caboe.”

As one, the two Apaches nodded briefly.

Paleto turned on his heel. “Come. We have food and a fire.”

* * *

A few minutes later, their ponies tethered with the others, the Tindi squatted around the small fire. Chiquito cleared his throat. “We hear of the One-Who-Seeks. You are far from Tucson.”

Slade and Paleto exchanged glances, each understanding the question behind the casual remark. Slade caught a sly look in Caboe’s eye, one he couldn’t quite comprehend. He replied with candor, “Our brother is dead high in the mountains. We go to bury him.”

Chiquito and Flacco nodded approvingly to each other, but Caboe kept his eyes on the fire. A tiny frown played over Chiquito’s sun-blackened face when he saw the blank expression on his compadre’s face.

“And you,” asked Slade, curious as to why one of the Tindis was riding a white man’s pony, “why are you so far from your winter home?”

The Lipan named Caboe grinned and nodded to the silver-inlaid saddle against which he leaned. “For what we can find.”

Slade arched an eyebrow. So the three were a small raiding party. He glanced at Paleto, who stared at him impassively. While they had saved the lives of Flacco and Caboe, and while there was much honor among the Apache, both Slade and Paleto knew they must not enjoy the sleep of the innocent that night.

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