The long, dark night had been abnormally frigid in a part of the country where frigid winter evenings were common. An alpine blast roared down the icy face of the towering, jagged peak to the north, straight down the main road leading into town and out to the vast prairie beyond. As a result, the normally mucked and muddy street between the storefronts was frozen to granite-like hardness. The front door of the General Supply had been blown open and jammed by swirling snow and ice.
Beyond the doorway, in the long shadows lit by a single battered lantern and the light of a murky winter's dawn creeping in from a single side window, a handful of tired, grim-faced men formed a loose semi-circle around the dead body of the shop owner.
The blood that had pooled around the body was every bit as frozen as John Mills himself. It crackled like a sheet of horehound candy when Rupert Wallace stepped on it. He leaned against his Winchester and crouched down to take a closer look. A hole in the fabric indicated where a bullet had exited the back of Mills' flannel undershirt, slightly to the left of his spine.
Wallace murmured, "Shot dead, straight through the heart . . . through and through." He looked up and asked the men. "Didn't any of you hear the gunshot?"
The blacksmith spoke first. "I was the closest . . . just across the empty lot next door. That howling wind was so loud you couldn't have heard cannon fire."
"Well, the killer didn't need a cannon to do this," Wallace replied. "Anybody want to guess what kind of bullet made that hole?"
"How would anybody know that?" the marshal snorted. "Any number of guns could have . . . "
"Oh, I'm positive," Wallace replied with certainty. "It was a .56-56 Spencer."
He rose and gazed around the dim shop.
Peering up the narrow stairway leading to the second floor, Wallace said, "Mr. Mills was in bed when he heard someone below, came down the stairs to check it out and was shot before he reached the bottom step. He probably didn't even get a chance to see the man who shot him." Wallace pointed up the stairway with his rifle barrel. "In the dark, it would've been an impossible shot for almost anyone, but Jocko Moreau is not just "anyone"."
"Jocko?" The marshal raised an eyebrow. "Who's . . . ?"
"His name is Jacques Moreau but he prefers "Jocko," Rupert Wallace interrupted. "I've been following him south through three states. He's robbed and murdered and moved on south from a half dozen towns just like this."
As an afterthought, he added, "You fellows are lucky the wind muffled the gunfire and kept you from jumping out of your warm beds, or you'd all be dead too."
The banker shuddered.
Climbing the creaking steps, Wallace pointed to drops of blood on the lower stair treads. The other men moved in for a closer look. Midway to the top, he paused to inspect a splintered hole in one of the risers. The group made way when Wallace came down the stairs and opened the door to the storage area behind the staircase. He pulled a square tin from a top shelf. A thin stream of flour flowed from a gap punched into the side. He pried off the lid and dug through the powder. Withdrawing his hand, he dropped a flour coated, misshapen blob of lead on the inverted tin lid with a clatter.
"This is the bullet that killed John Mills., a .56-56 Spencer."
The marshal took the tin and studied the flour-flecked bullet with an odd mix of awe and fear.
"Say," he spat, pointing to the bullet, "what is this and who are you?"
Wallace rubbed the residual flour between his thumb and forefinger. He watched the little, wormlike blobs of dough drop from his fingertips to the frosted floorboards. He did not look at the marshal as he spoke.
"I come from a family of lawmen. My father was a founding member of the Bow Street Runners in London. They were the first to solve a murder involving a gun based on evidence found on a bullet."
Wallace pointed to the bullet on the tin. "That's no mere chunk of lead—that is forensic evidence."
The men all stared at the bullet. "Nonsense," scoffed the banker, "How can that be evidence of anything?"
Rupert Wallace reached into the pocket of his coat and withdrew a leather bag. Loosening the drawstring, he dumped the contents on a nearby countertop with a leaden clatter. There were several fired bullets, some as misshapen as the one from the flour tin while others appeared to be generally intact.
"These bullets all bear striation evidence tying them all to a Spencer carbine like the one used by Jocko Moreau. Here, see for yourself." Wallace handed the marshal a jeweler's loupe. The men took turns inspecting the fired bullets.
"I don't see what you're getting at," the banker objected.
The blacksmith was equally perplexed, "Neither do I."
They looked up from the pile of bullets and saw Wallace scooping into a wooden barrel and filling his pockets with hardtack.
"Hey what's the idea?" the marshal demanded.
"We can all sit here and jawbone about forensics and ballistics," he declared as he pointed to the body on the floor. "But there's still a dead man over there and I'm going out to get the man who killed him."
Wallace strode through the open shop door, crossed the street to the saloon. He stepped behind the counter and filled a battered, silver hip flask with whiskey. He stepped back into the street just in time to be confronted by the other men.
"Listen, mister," the blacksmith objected, "John Mills was our friend and so we should be the ones to hunt his killer." The others nodded in agreement.
"Jocko Moreau left here and headed where it would be almost impossible to find him." Wallace turned and pointed toward the mountain to the north. For a moment, the clouds parted enough to provide them with a glimpse of the summit atop the great wall of ice.
Her turned and set his gaze upon each of the men. "Which one of you here really thinks he's fit to go up there, find Jocko Moreau and bring him back down?" He pointed once again with his rifle barrel.
"You want to try, Blacksmith?"
"Or you, Barkeep?"
"Or maybe you, Mr. Banker?"
Each of them stared at the frosty ground and shook their heads, sadly. Wallace then addressed marshal.
"How about you, lawman? Do you have a plan for handling this kind of problem?"
The marshal cleared his throat. "Well, I think the best thing to do is to ride out to Breckenridge and get the Summit County Sheriff to form a posse," he offered.
Wallace scoffed. "By the time you got back, Moreau would be two counties to the south and he'd probably be killing, again, too."
He unhitched his horse and slid his Winchester into its leather scabbard. He stepped into the worn stirrup and onto the cold saddle. He reigned the horse around toward the mountains.
"Hey," the marshal shouted over the howling wind, "You never told us your name!"
Wallace regarded the marshal for a moment but rode northward out of town without another word.
"Better watch yourself out there!" the marshal shouted after the fading figure. "Storm's comin' and it's gonna be bad!"
The looming mountain was once again swallowed up in the clouds. The wind howled and blew heavy needles of ice.
The ride was from town was uneventful at first. Wallace's horse was familiar with following untraveled, snow-covered trails. Still, the strong headwind made for slow going. By the time they reached the woods at the foot of the mountain, the horse was belly deep in snow.
The tall, thick timber provided some cover from the storm. For the first time, Wallace could clearly see Moreau's tracks in the snow. He dismounted and kept his rifle at the ready as he followed the footprints. At the upper edge of the tree line, Wallace dismounted and left his horse tied to a sapling.
The wind blowing down the treeless slope was harsher than Wallace had anticipated.
The snow and frigid gale intensified as he stumbled up the hill. With each step, his long legs sank and were gripped by the deepening drifts. He soon realized that it would be a miracle if he picked up Jocko's trail above that point. His vision was obscured by the blasting snow against his face. A rime of icy frost pulled at his moustache and beard. He drew up the thick collar of his bear coat and trudged upward.
Climbing against the brunt of the storm made for extremely slow going, but Wallace was gaining measurable ground. From time to time he'd crouch forward in search of a trace of Jocko's tracks. He found it increasingly difficult to fight the urge to curl up into a ball and rest.
A wave of relief washed over him as a sheer wall of ice covered rock appeared before him, providing a bit of protection. He huddled against the rock and greedily swallowed whiskey from his flask. The cork slipped from his numb fingers and fell into a fresh footprint. Wallace froze and drew his rifle.
His eyes followed the tracks as they rose and veered to the left against the overhang. He caught the flash of muzzle fire from above. The bullet passed close enough to glance the edge of his right earlobe as it tore into his fur cap and pinged against the granite wall. Cursing the pain, he dropped to one knee and squinted up the mountain. The next muzzle flash was close enough to allow Wallace to spot a shadowy Jocko Moreau within the swirling snow, half concealed by a rocky overhang. He took aim and fired from his crouched position. Moreau doubled over and fell.
He was lying face down, legs splayed, his head pointing downhill. His dropped Spencer carbine sat, barrel down in the snow several feet away. Wallace approached the body cautiously. He circled the big man and stopped uphill of him on the steep slope. Moreau was a big man, well over six feet.
Wallace reached down and gripped the big man's by the sleeve of his rough coat and rolled him over. Moreau turned suddenly and raised his arm to fire the pistol he'd concealed next to his chest. The bullet flew at an odd angle, striking Wallace on the outside of his right thigh before making a burning exit out the other side. He drew his own Colt Dragoon from beneath his coat but was unable to fire as his shot leg gave way.
Wallace tumbled forward and instinctively grabbed Moreau's leg as he pitched down the mountainside.
Both men slid uncontrollably, swallowed up by the storm. Wallace tried to make sense of the alternating grey sky, equally grey, snowy slope and the occasional exposed piles of jagged, grey chert, but in the end, it was all nothing short of a whirling nightmare of bone-rattling pain. They hit a bump and flew, airborne for several seconds. Freed from the pounding, Wallace experienced a peculiarly calming sense of euphoric peace.
Then he struck his head and the world flashed from grey to black.
When Wallace regained consciousness, he could still hear the roar of the blizzard but it sounded far off. He lay on his side in the snow. He took a moment to inspect his face and head with his hands. A goose egg lump on his forehead indicated the blow that had knocked him out. In addition, he was relieved to find that beside the searing ache in his thigh, all of his limbs seemed to be unbroken and sound. He pulled himself upright and found he'd fallen into a narrow slot between vertical walls of stone. Although cold, the crevasse provided some protection from the raging storm. Further away, sitting with his back propped against the wall was an awake and very alert Jocko Moreau.
Wallace lunged in for his pistol and found nothing.
"It's not there," Moreau said in an unexpectedly jovial tone, "you dropped it when you dragged me down the mountain.
In all the months Wallace had tracked his man, this was the first time he'd actually heard his voice. He'd imagined the tone would be guttural and laced with the inhuman growls of vermin. The reality was far more cultured than he'd expected. Wallace found the sound of Moreau's voice to be unsettlingly pleasant. It bore mild a ring of humanistic civility as out of place as a rattler in gaiters.
He studied the man's face and what he saw unnerved him every bit as much as what he'd just heard. Moreau had a dewy gleam in his puppy eyes and a flush in his checks that was almost baby-like. Long thick, black curls rested on his beamlike shoulders. He was a bear of a man but his countenance spoke more in favor of circus bear than wild grizzly.
"My name is Jocko," he said in that same, unnerving lilt. "My real name . . .
"I know who you are, Moreau," Wallace growled. "You're a killer, and the people you killed deserve justice. When this storm ends, I plan to go down to the tree line and build a sledge to drag your frozen, carcass back to town."
Instead of being stung by the words, Moreau regarded Wallace with vivid interest. "So, you've been following me, have you? I'm honored you took the time to track me down," he said with what sounded to Wallace like genuine appreciation.
"Since Butte," he replied. "I saw the wanted poster. I picked up your trail and followed you south."
"Really?" Moreau said with curious interest. "What was your motive? Did I kill someone you knew?"
Wallace shook his head, "I only came after you because there's a reward for you." He pulled a battered wanted poster from his coat and tossed it toward Moreau. He moaned as he stretched forward to retrieve the wad of paper.
He unfolded the paper and worked out the wrinkles with his meaty palm before reading the printed portion of the wanted poster. "Twenty five dollars?" he exclaimed in wonder, "That's all I'm worth?"
Wallace nodded and smirked. "That's all you are worth to me."
Moreau looked at his likeness drawn on the poster. He held it up beside his face.
"The artist must have been having a terrible day, don't you think?"
Wallace caught himself smiling involuntarily as Jacques Moreau mugged next to the fierce, terrifying likeness of him on the poster.
Moreau set the paper down and clutched at his belly with his hand. "Well, you caught me, Mr . . . "
"Wallace, Rupert Wallace."
Moreau tossed the poster aside. "If you do make it out of here, I imagine I will be the easiest twenty five dollars you've ever made.
"Well, I imagine you and I are pretty much equally dead at this point," Moreau muttered with an odd combination of defeat and satisfaction. "Neither of us are in any condition to make it off this mountain alive."
"I disagree," Wallace replied. "I'd take being shot in the leg over your belly wound any day."
Moreau winced and took a look under the bloody handkerchief he held to his belly.
"If it makes you feel any better, it's worse than you think," Moreau offered. "When I rolled down the mountain, I struck a rock and I think my back is broken. Look at this." He pointed to his two legs. They splayed, lifelessly below him.
"I can't imagine you being much better, though," Moreau added.
"I've been better," Wallace agreed. He was at the bottom of a deep crevasse with one functional leg. The other throbbed in the cold. He pulled off his belt and tied it above the wound to slow the blood. Reaching into his coat pocket, he found a square of hardtack. He snapped off a piece and put it in his mouth. He must have injured his jaw because it ached as he chewed.
Moreau watched with hungry eyes. Wallace broke the brittle biscuit in half and flicked it to him.
"Not exactly fluffy."
"Hold it in your mouth for a bit. It'll be chewable in about an hour."
Sipping from his flask, Wallace asked, "So why'd you kill those people?"
Moreau pushed the hardtack into his cheek with his tongue and shrugged, "I needed to eat and shooting those people was like shooting anything else, say a bear or a deer, for food. I had nothing against those people. I just had to eat."
"Yeah, but people are not bears or deer, are they?"
"Until the war, I would have agreed with you. Were you in the war between the North and South?"
"No," Wallace answered.
"Well, I was there for what many say was the worst of it. I saw men shot and blown up and I did more than my own share of shooting and killing, too." He paused to shift the piece of hardtack. "And you know what? I didn't hate it. I came to like it. A lot."
Wallace's view of Moreau began to return to where it had begun. Moreau read the revulsion on his face.
"What?" asked Moreau, "You've never killed anyone?"
Moreau stared in genuine amazement. "You are a man of extraordinary rarity, my friend. Why, this harsh land must be brimming with killers! Everybody from marshals and ranchers all the way down to schoolmarms and grandmothers."
"Yeah," Wallace agreed. "But not because they liked doing it." He took another drink of the whiskey. He recorked the flask and tossed it over to Moreau. Moreau caught it and gulped and then wheezed and blinked back pain fueled tears.
"I think that drink spouted out the hole in my gut," he rasped as he tossed the flask back.
The men sat silently for a long while, spent from the effort of conversation. Wallace took several sips and rested the flask on his uninjured thigh.
"Once," said Wallace, abruptly.
"Once, what?" Moreau asked.
Wallace took a sip and nodded, "I did kill someone, once."
With effort, Moreau sat upright.
"I was in my twenties, doing some hired labor for an Irish family who owned a small farm. I helped him build a cabin, a pole barn and a pen for a milk cow. Then we plowed several acres of farmland. Every yard the plow traveled, the ground heaved up half a dozen stones the size of a bread loaf." He shook his head at the memory. "It was pretty rough and slow going, but the farmer was fair and the work was good, honest work."
"The farmer and his wife had one son; barely older than a baby. Just the thickest shock of red hair. He'd wander along and follow me all over the farm. We'd break for supper and he'd sit on a stump right there with me and eat out of his own little tin pail."
"One morning, we started digging a well and the going was slow with all the buried stones. By noon, I was only down about waist deep, digging and tossing those stones.
"I hefted the pick to dig and I struck the boy on the backswing. I didn't even hear him coming. I knew I'd killed him even before I turned around as his body slumped against the small of my back and his tiny hand gripped my suspenders." Wallace gripped the flask and thought about the boy. He'd never grow up or marry or have children. He was just dead.
"Of course," he added, "the parents didn't blame me. The father and I buried him on a hill overlooking the farm."
"That's pretty sad," Moreau nodded, his lungs wheezing. "But that's a bit different. Nothing you could have done to help that."
"But it doesn't end there," Wallace interrupted.
"In the following weeks, I stopped by the farm several times to see if the farmer had any work for me. Each time, he'd tell me to come back in a few days."
"One morning, I saw smoke rising in the direction of the farm. By the time I got there the whole works; the house and the barn were burning hard. There was nothing I could do. I sifted through the ashes and found charred bones among the remains of the cabin timbers."
"I gathered the bones I could find into a bag and dragged them up the hill and buried them next to the boy. I rode away and never went back."
Wallace glanced over at Moreau, who'd slumped down and tilted his head back. He seemed to be fading. Soon he could hear Moreau snoring deeply. Wallace watched him as is silhouette faded into the deepening shadows.
When Wallace awoke, every bone in his body was stiff and painful. His thigh throbbed with a burning, needlelike intensity.
He looked over at Moreau. The big man lay still and lifeless. Wallace crawled over and felt his wrist. There was no pulse and his eyes were upturned and transfixed below frosted eyebrows. His skin was cold and blue.
With great effort and pain, Wallace worked his way to where the stone walls narrowed and climbed upward. He dug up through the roof of snow with his hands. Sliding onto the hardening layer of snow and tightened the tourniquet around his leg. He cursed the pain. The shining sun struck Wallace with an oddly vivid shock.
He staggered down the mountain and made the tree line in a matter of hours. His horse had waited patiently and greeted him with gratitude. He drew the horse to fresh grazing while he reached to his side and drew his Bowie knife. He hacked several saplings to build a sledge to retrieve Moreau's body.
Wallace mounted his horse and dragged the sledge above the tree line to retrieve Jocko Moreau's body. He dismounted and stumbled up the hill to the downslope edge of the crevasse. What he saw left him dumbfounded.
He had to stop and let the sight register.
On the upslope end of the crevasse, a set of footprints led up the mountain, disappearing over a distant rise. He knew Moreau had climbed out of the crevasse.
How was it even possible? How could Moreau be alive? Wallace had checked his pulse. His skin was cold. How could he have climbed out of the crevasse with a broken spine? Had he feigned a broken spine?
Wallace limped to the edge of the crevasse and climbed down. He scanned the floor for clues. He found blood, but not enough to ooze from a direct gunshot wound to the belly. Near the blood, he found a single stone the size of a potato. He instantly understood why Moreau had no pulse. He jammed the stone under his armpit and squeezed it against his ribcage. Placing his finger on his upturned wrist, Wallace felt no pulse.
He dropped to the snowy floor with a grunting thud and tried to sort through his whirling thoughts.
Moreau must have been grazed by the bullet in the storm. When he'd flipped Moreau over, Jocko must had intended to finish Wallace with a shot from his pistol. Falling into the crevasse had complicated things; neither of the men's guns had made it down, but Moreau had a contingency. He'd waited for Wallace to leave and simply walked away. But why hadn't Moreau finished him off while he was sleeping?
Wallace struggled out of the crevasse and followed Moreau's tracks. They meandered from side to side as Moreau searched for the missing guns. Where he'd paused to dig in the snow, Wallace knew Moreau had found one of them, then another and another.
What he saw next was chilling. There were hoof prints in the snow. How had Moreau kept a horse up here? Was he some sort of phantom?
Then, he spotted something truly odd. Next to the place where Moreau had retrieved the third gun lay Wallace's own Colt Dragoon. He checked the cylinder and found only one bullet.
Moreau had left the gun intentionally. But why?
"He wants me to follow him," muttered Wallace. Moreau was enjoying the chase.
He weighed the odds. Moreau carried both rifles in addition to a pistol. He had a horse and an uncanny ability to rise from the dead. Wallace, on the other hand, had his Dragoon and a single bullet.
"I can live with those odds," he muttered as he shoved the dragoon into his waistband and climbed into the saddle.