Sun-baked Fort McDowell shimmered in dancing heat waves on a blistering Sunday afternoon in late August when a lone horseman ambled in behind the camp's mess hall. He let the dusty black horse under him pick his pace. Joel Patrick Bannon had been nearly a week on the hard trail, and a day at the desolate Army post spread along the southwest banks of the narrow Verde River would be a welcome respite on his long journey home.
Bannon skirted an open plain behind a long row of cavalry stables and nearly empty corrals. A brawl had broken out among several young infantry soldiers playing a rough-and-ready game of baseball, and a harried shavetail labored to break it up. A few soldiers on the slack gave him cursory glances as he angled toward the officers' quarters—a long, low line of ugly adobe buildings overlooking the square-shaped parade ground. Thick adobe walls separated the little mud-colored houses, and each house boasted a small window to the left of the front door. Ramadas—crude awnings made of leafy brush and supported by cottonwood poles—shaded each window. Under their spotty shade hung large clay jars called ollas in which drinking water was cooled. A rough-planked sidewalk ran the length of the row, beside a ditch dug by soldiers along a line of tall, verdant cottonwood trees. In the ditch—called the acequia by local Mexicans—ran the water which supplied the camp.
The Sixth Cavalry and Eighth Infantry garrisoned the sprawling camp a little northeast of the burgeoning town of Phoenix. Roving bands of Apache dodging the Camp Apache and the San Carlos reservations to the east and the southeast often found hiding places in the stony fastness of the Superstition Mountains, and the officers and men at McDowell were routinely kept busy scouting and driving the renegades back to the reservations.
A yellow-haired cavalry lieutenant thin enough to double for a flagpole offered only a perfunctory glance as Bannon rode up. The young officer squatted on a short, three-legged stool in the shade of a ramada at the west end of the officers' quarters, his blouse sleeves rolled to the elbows as he polished the gold buttons on his dark blue, heavily braided tunic. Straggly blond hairs struggled to be seen above his lip. Someday, Bannon thought, with a little luck the lieutenant might grow a proper mustache. The lieutenant stopped polishing and looked up again when the stranger dismounted.
Bannon took off his wide-brimmed plainsman's hat and slapped trail dust off his fringed buckskin shirt. A short-barreled Colt Peacemaker minus its front sight rested in a smooth leather holster clipped to his belt slightly left of the buckle. The worn dark wood handle rode within easy reach of his right hand. A bone-handled Bowie knife sixteen inches long slanted grip forward in a plain leather sheath on his right hip.
"Lieutenant." Bannon touched the brim of his hat and made a point to smile. "Looking for Captain Hovis."
"Social. Knew him up in Wyoming. I sold him several horses for the cavalry."
"If you rode in from Wyoming you picked the wrong time. Apache named Victorio jumped the San Carlos four days ago with a bunch of other young bucks, and the captain and the cavalry's out chasing them. They could be out for weeks."
Bannon nodded. "Post looks mighty deserted."
"No cavalry here just now. Only the Eighth foot."
"And I am the sole cavalry presence on this post just now. In fact, I am being transferred to Fort Apache. I leave tomorrow with the pack train. That is why I am doing this." The lieutenant indicated the brass buttons. "The CO at Apache is a stickler for spit and polish. By the by, I'm Tobias Arnold."
"Call me Bannon. Glad to meet you. Sutler open on Sunday?"
"Closed today. There's a trading post a couple miles to the north."
"Thanks. Reckon I'll mosey, then."
"Bannon . . . Bannon." The lieutenant mulled the name, suddenly bobbed his head. "Yes, sir. I believe I have heard Hovis speak of you. He will be sorry to have missed you."
Bannon slid easily into the saddle.
"I heard you say Wyoming. If you are bound that direction you need to be careful of those renegades. They probably made south for Mexico when they jumped, but you cannot be certain. You be vigilant. Renegade Apaches are plenty to worry over if you're on the road alone."
"That's a hunch." He gathered the black's reins and left the lieutenant to his business.
A small knot of officers and their women relaxed in the shade of cottonwoods along the Verde, talking among themselves while a number of children played nearby. The Four Peaks of the purple McDowell Mountains loomed behind them, framing a picturesque scene. He halted the black in the shade of the farrier's shed, emptied a small bag of oats into his hat and let the horse eat while he watched several children gleefully splashing in the red water of the Verde. When the stallion had finished, he rode into the shallow river to let him drink, drawing the attention of the adults, many of whom curiously surveyed him. After a while he tipped his hat to them and rode back the way he had come.
He had meant to spend the night at the post and pick up supplies from the sutler on his way out in the morning. Instead, he decided to swing by Kale's, about a mile west of McDowell, to pick up a few things he needed, then keep moving. He could reach the foothills by dusk.
The Kale Brothers trading post stood on open land, a low, L-shaped adobe and wood structure tucked among towering saguaro, many seven or eight times the height of a man. A wooden, roofed porch fronted the long leg of the L, which boasted three entrances—a large double door in the middle and smaller doors at either end.
He left the black in the shade of a four-arm saguaro at the corner of the L, the reins dangling. A shaggy brown and black mutt sleeping beside the door at the end of the porch looked up briefly, did not appear impressed, and rested his head between his paws. Bannon stepped inside and eased into the corner, standing motionless until his eyes grew accustomed to the dimness. From that corner he commanded a view of both legs of the L and his gaze swept the two rooms.
About a dozen customers, mostly soldiers, lounged on battered chairs in the larger room, apparently to find relief from the scorching sun. They drank beer and half-heartedly cursed each other as money and IOUs passed between them. Their attention mainly focused on a billiards table at the back of that room. Harsh laughter and loud swearing followed the faint click-clack of clay billiard balls.
About half as many layabouts took up space in the smaller room, all but one sitting at a round table playing poker. A bony, horse-faced clerk with wide-set, drooping eyes craned a long neck over a stack of canned tomatoes, letting a prominent Adam's apple bob. The clerk had the saddest-looking face Bannon had ever seen.
The slim clerk stepped behind the counter. "How can I help you?"
Bannon ran off a short list and the clerk jotted down notes on a pad and slipped away to the larger room to fill the order. Bannon leaned against the counter and watched the five men playing draw poker.
He guessed the four unarmed infantry privates at the table were no more than twenty years of age. The fifth man, medium size and about twice the age of the soldiers, wore his black hair oiled, parted down the middle, and smoothed to each side. Long, black mustaches drooped around a small mouth, making his prominent nose look even bigger. He wore a new black, three-piece ditto suit, and a black bowler hung from a nail on the back of his armless chair. A heavy gold watch fob dangled from the left side of his floral-printed waistcoat, the end disappearing into a large pocket. Wire-rimmed, blue-tinted spectacles hid his eyes, but the tilt of his head told anyone paying attention the man was intently watching the cards being dealt by the private to his right. Bannon clenched his jaw at the sight of the spectacles.
"Check." The gambler tapped the manicured tips of long fingers on the table.
"Same here," the private to the gambler's left said.
"I'll chance the draw," the next private said.
"You can't run me out that way." The third soldier put his cards on the table and tapped the drawing of a Bengal Tiger gracing the back of the top card.
The private who had dealt picked up the deck and eyed the gambler. "How many?"
"I'll play these."
"Now, that is what I call a skunk play." The private holding the deck fastened his eyes on the gambler while his mouth twisted in a little arc. His gaze suddenly switched to the private sitting to the gambler's left. "Reeney?"
"That mean you got an ace?" The dealer smiled, slipped four cards onto the tabletop, one at a time. Bannon kept his eyes on the man behind the blue tints. The gambler leaned slightly forward, and Bannon was satisfied the man studied the cards keenly.
"Me, too," the next private said.
"A second ace," the dealer said and dispensed the cards.
The third private looked at the dealer. "Can I get all new cards?"
"Remember what we told you, Pen. You can take five less'n you got an ace."
"Then I want five."
"I got that part of your rules, Crem."
"Sooner you pick up the rest of 'em the sooner we can play somethin' more entertainin'," Crem said. "Mind like yours is made for an officer."
"Told you, Pa never allowed no card playin' at home."
"That's plain as warts on a two-headed dog," Reeney said. "Give him his cards, Crem, and let's get on with this."
Crem slid five cards to his right and the gambler lifted his head to watch as Pen picked them up one at a time.
"Dealer takes three."
"Check." The gambler again tapped the table, and the next three players did the same.
"Four bits." Crem dropped the coins on the table, one at a time.
The gambler didn't hesitate. "Raise to a dollar."
Reeney and the private to his left quickly mucked. Pen held his cards close to his face and fanned through them. "Raise another dollar."
The other three soldiers looked hard at Pen. The two who were out of the play sat silent, knowing anything they said with Crem still in the hand would be uncalled for. Crem looked at his hand, back at the raiser.
"Damn, Pen. You tryin' to skunk me, too?"
Pen's right foot began tapping the floor. He put the cards face down on the table, his right hand shaking slightly. Crem muttered under his breath and tossed his cards.
"Raise two." The gambler gently stacked shiny silver dollars in front of him.
"Call." Pen flipped his hand over. Five bright red cards greeted expectant faces.
"Damn, Pen." Crem shook his head. "Whatta ya doin'?"
"Whatta ya mean. They're all red."
"Pen, you got three hearts and two diamonds. That hand ain't worth teats on a bull."
"They're all red," Pen said again, but nothing that suggested confidence backed his words.
"Too bad, soldier." The gambler showed two sevens and reached for the pot.
Pen looked at the gambler then turned his head toward Crem.
"Pen, they gotta be the same suit."
Pen dropped his head and smacked his forehead three times with the fingers of both hands. "Boil me for an oyster."
"Ay, god," Reeney said, shaking his head. "You surely ain't built for speed."
"Don't let them judder you, son," the gambler said. "Only way to learn from your mistakes is to make 'em."
"By that count," Reeney said, "Private Pendleton ought to be the smartest man in the whole rosy world."
Another man, tall and lanky with a tied-down six-shooter low on his right hip, drifted in from the larger room and passed in front of Bannon. He was almost as tall, but not as solid through the arms and shoulders. He took a seat at a table behind the card players, just to the right of the gambler. After sweeping Bannon with an offhand glance, he seemed to lose interest. He pushed back his rust-colored Montana peak hat to show black hair with a deep widow's peak. A rawhide string laced through the edge of the hat's brim kept it from flopping. He took the makings from his vest pocket and began to leisurely roll a smoke.
Bannon returned his gaze to the gambler and watched as the man dealt. Long, tapered fingers—polished and dainty—proved quick with the deck. The gambler did not watch the other players but was intent on the cards as they came off his fingers. Only when he gave cards to himself did his eyes stray from the deck, and he gave himself away only by the faintest tilt of his head. The movement went unnoticed by the others in the game, who were focused on their own cards.
The deal finished, the gambler made a quick survey of the players' faces. Bannon fixed the gambler with a hard stare when the man's glance fell on him. The gambler's head quickly turned, the specs hiding his eyes.
The hand was quickly played. The gambler again took the pot and the blond private to Reeney's left threw down his cards and shoved his chair back. The chair legs squealed loudly on the dim room's rough planks.
"I'm out," he said, rising to his feet.
"Aw, sit down, Tom," the dark-haired Crem said. "You can borrow from me."
"No. I'm down two months' pay as it is."
Tom glared at the gambler and straightened his back. Bannon thought the private might do something rash, but the infantryman's shoulders slumped and he turned away.
"His luck runs too good for me," Tom said at length.
The gambler's face darkened and his upper lip curled, but the private had already wheeled for the door. "I need to grease my boots," Tom said.
Tom's heavy steps still echoed along the small room when the gambler looked at Bannon. The curl disappeared from his upper lip, replaced by a tight smile.
"Perhaps the gentleman at the counter would like to sit in."
If Bannon had not taken such an immediate dislike to the cardsharp, he would have let it pass. He would have simply waited for his supplies and rode on. Instead, every emotion in his body vanished. He eased from the counter and stepped close to the gambler.
"It's an honest deck."
"Two types I don't play cards with." Bannon's low voice grated hard as a running iron. His gaze bored into the gambler but did not miss the gunman to the gambler's right, now watching with sudden interest. "One-eyed and four-eyed."
The gambler flushed and even behind the blue-tints Bannon could see the man's eyes cloud over at being called a cheater. To the gambler's right, the gunman tilted forward in his chair and his right hand edged to his holstered six-shooter.
"Your meaning?" the gambler cried.
"Knew a gambler up at Laramie once." His voice was deceivingly relaxed. "Wore blue-tinted specs. A lucky man at the tables. For a bit. The four-eye's luck turned when he was found marking the cards with phosphorous. He used the tints to see the marks."
A deathly stillness blanketed the room. The gambler froze, as did the soldiers, all eyes fixed on Bannon. Crem grabbed the cards and stared at their backs. The gambler jerked his chair back and his right hand flashed to his chest. Bannon closed like the strike of a rattler. He pulled the Bowie and slammed the flat side of the wide blade across the gambler's jaw. The tinhorn toppled over his chair and to the floor. Dazed, the man's right hand tugged at the watch fob and stopped when a voice—cool and measured—cut into him.
"That best be a watch," Bannon said.
The gambler's hand halted where the fob disappeared into his vest pocket. His blue-tints had fallen off and black eyes glared hate. Blood leaking from the gambler's jaw and nose rolled down his mustaches and splattered his printed vest. Bannon stepped closer and pinned the gambler's right hand with his boot. He returned the big knife to the sheath on his hip and yanked at the gambler's gold fob. No watch came out of the man's pocket, but an over-under Wesson derringer. He held the little gun high for everyone to see before he tossed it against the wall. He picked up the blue-tints and stepped back from the sprawled figure.
His hand shaking, the black-garbed sport drew a white, silk handkerchief from his coat pocket and pressed it to his bloodied face.
The lanky man sitting to the gambler's right remained still, but his green eyes cut dark and cold.
"I ought to kill you," Bannon told the gambler, "but it wasn't me you were cheating so I'll let it go. You won't do any more business here."
The soldiers, rigid in their chairs, gaped. Bannon tossed the specs onto the tabletop. Crem eagerly scooped them up and examined the backs of several cards. After a few seconds, the private cursed and flung down the tinted glasses and cards. Reeney grabbed them and repeated the test, with the same result. Pen started to follow suit when a cold and flinty voice stopped him.
"I'll take those."
The lanky man with the low-riding six-shooter rose gracefully to his feet, his manner unhurried, his green eyes calm. His half-finished cigarette dangled loosely from his lips, a thin reed of smoke curling upward. His left shoulder turned slightly, and his right hand hovered near the butt of the Army Single Action tied to his hip. His eyes glinted like polished emeralds under the wide brim of his pushed-back hat. Bannon had seen his kind before. The man would be good with that iron on his hip—quick yet deliberate. He would not fire hastily. If he got off a shot he would likely hit his mark.
"You got a interferin' nature, compadre." The Texas drawl was pleasant, but his face exposed his intent. "Ain't smart to call my friend a cheat."
A thin smile creased the bloodied gambler's lips, but he made no motion.
"You a pal of the tinhorn?" Bannon asked.
The green-eyed gunman shrugged. "Not so's you'd notice, but I got a grubstake in that craw-jammer on the floor and you're meddlin' in it."
"You back a grifter you borrow a fair amount of trouble."
"I'm doin' it. You can poach your egg right here and now or you can turn around and slope. I won't hinder you. Far as I judge we got no quarrel, seein's how Kramer's such a muzzle-loadin' daisy. But if you aim to stick you will have to back your play."
"I'd be glad to go. I didn't come in here to stay long."
The gunman smiled coldly.
"Good way to think of it, compadre. Ain't no reason to fight somebody else's battles."
"But the soldiers take the money before I go."
The gunman lost his thin smile. "Reckon not."
"Soldier," Bannon called, his eyes fixed on the man bracing him.
"Sir?" Pen answered in a barely audible high-pitched squeak.
"Take the money on the table and get out."
"You move, soldier, I'll kill you."
"Me first," Bannon said.
"Make your play."
The gunman's hand snaked for his six-shooter. He was fast, but his six-gun had barely cleared leather when a slug from the Peacemaker opened a hole in the center of his chest and slammed him into the wall. The fire went out of his green eyes and his head shook slightly in disbelief. His Army Colt went off and the bullet smacked the wall to his left. Still on his feet he raised the Colt for another shot, and the Peacemaker roared again. The second slug spun the gunman around. His finger jerked and his six-shooter exploded a final time, the bullet plowing a harmless furrow across the hard floor. He hit the wall face first and bounced off. He fell backward onto a table. It gave beneath his weight, throwing him to the floor and then toppling over his lifeless body.
The little room hushed. No one moved, but soldiers rushed in—two with pool cues in hand—from the larger room. The soldiers drew up in a knot near the bar, staring silently at the two men sprawled on the floor and at the big man standing solidly, six-shooter in hand.
The gambler's terrified eyes riveted on the black hole of the deadly Peacemaker, but Bannon had by now dismissed him. His eyes fixed on the lifeless man beside the gambler, and a brief, sad look flicked over his face. He put the Colt on half-cock and popped open the loading gate. His actions were sure and quick but not the least hurried as he slipped cartridges into two of the three empty chambers, closed the gate, drew the hammer to full cock and lowered it slowly, the firing pin over the empty chamber. He slid the Colt back into its holster. It had all been done as smoothly as blinking.
"What was his name?" he asked Kramer.
"Lafe Harris," the gambler squeaked.
Bannon nodded and turned to the infantrymen. He pushed the pile of crumpled greenbacks and glinting coins to the center of the table and told the soldiers to split it among them.
"And don't forget your comrade, Tom."
The sad-faced clerk clutched some of his supplies in shaking hands, but most had spilled onto the counter. The clerk nervously gathered them, barely able to tear his eyes from the dead man on the floor. Bannon paid and turned to go but stopped when he saw the soldiers truculently eyeing the four-flusher. Kramer had crawled to the farthest corner and was sitting with his back against the wall, pressing his red-stained handkerchief to his face.
"Let him be," Bannon told them. "He's broken and you got your money."
The soldiers hesitated, glancing at each other with wide, frosty eyes. After a moment, Crem backed off and the others followed him outside.
"You see it clear?" Bannon asked the clerk.
"Saw it clear. That lead-spinner went for his sidearm and you fried his bacon. It was plain you had no choice."
"Tell them what you saw when they ask." He turned to the gambler. "You're lucky, sport . . . today. If you want to keep your luck take a hunch. Don't ever cross my trail again."
The gambler said nothing and did not move as Bannon drew away.
Loud voices fell silent when Bannon came out of Kale's. The soldiers had gathered around the black stallion, taking in the long-barreled Peacemaker tucked into a saddle holster on the right side, a Winchester in a saddle boot just behind the Colt, and a sawed-off Greener twelve-gauge in a boot on the saddle's left side. They watched wordlessly as Bannon tucked his supplies into the deep saddlebags.
"Better send for the provost." He tied a small bag of oats, enough to last until he made the high country, to his bedroll.
"Yes, sir," Crem said. "Mister, that was . . . "
"Better go to the provost, soldier." He swung into the saddle. "Tell an officer what happened here before one comes to ask you."
"Maybe you should hang around," Reeney ventured. He was sitting on the porch steps, his right hand idly stroking the brown-and-black mutt.
"Lot of questions—" Crem started to say, but Bannon was in no mood for conversation.
"Tell the provost."
He shook the reins and the big black started out. He gave no thought the infantrymen might try to stop him. Soon, rider and horse were a single black dot fading into the darkness of the distant Four Peaks.