The wind whipped at Jack Clayton’s body and he swung from side to side, clutching the cold, slippery rope as he groped for footing on the side of the cliff. The rain pelted his face and rivulets of water poured into his eyes adding to the poor visibility of the night. There should have been a full moon, but the storm clouds had covered the sky this night. It made better cover as he tried to scale the rock wall, but every step, every inch of his climb was precarious and more difficult, calling on all his strength and strong willed determination to make it to the top of the canyon wall. Minute after agonizing minute he inched his way up the wall until he reached the precipice where he had looped his lasso around an outcropping of rock. As he pulled himself to the outcropping, he found a narrow ledge that he could roll onto. He rolled to his back, breathing heavily, relaxing and trying to regain his strength. The rain pounded his face. He closed his eyes as let the torrent pour over him. When he had caught his wind, he opened his eyes, squinting though the pounding rain and wind. He could see the top of the rim now, about twenty feet further up. He wouldn’t use the rope again. From here on, he would climb finding footholds and handholds where he could. He was close now. Don’t rush it! One slip, one misstep and he could give himself away or worse, tumble back to the canyon floor. Slowly he stood up on the ledge. Checked his six gun, secured in the holster on his right thigh and then the pistol in the shoulder harness rig beneath his leather vest. Hatless, rain drizzled from his tousled black hair. A flash of lighting glinted across his strong face reflecting in his steely blue eyes. With a sigh of determination, he turned to the wall, reached high over head and found a handhold. With a tight grip, his body stretched, his right booted foot sought a foot hold. Only after careful search and fixing his foot firmly in place did he attempt to pull himself higher. Slowly, methodically, he repeated the procedure, inching skyward. When at last he reached the top, he gave one huge lunge, pushing himself over the edge and rolling onto the turf. Lightening flashed and for a fleeting moment he could see a building of some sort. With a sudden roll to the left, he found himself crawling behind a large rock and some scrub brush. Raising himself on his elbows, he waited for the next flash of lightening. Thunder rolled. Darkness remained. Then another flash, followed by more thunder. In that instant he made out the shape of a barn, some fifty yards away to his right. Another flash and he saw a rough hewn house across the way from the barn. Darkness again. He peered intently toward where the house stood. After moments, he could finally make out the wink of a faint light which must have shone through a window, difficult to see in the storm. Again and again he waited for the flashes. Each time taking in more of his surrounding, mapping the entire area in his head. He would need to know where he was at all times, even in the pitch black of night. Finally, it was time to make his move. Quickly, he darted toward where he had seen the barn standing. A flash of lightening sent him diving to the wet ground, hoping to find cover. A second, then two. The thunder rolled. He pushed himself upward and continued through the darkness. Repeatedly, he continued forward until he found himself sitting with his back against the rear wall of the barn. He rested, listening intently for sounds. Eventually he could tune out the drum of the rain and the rolling of thunder until he thought he could here sounds of movement. Livestock, no doubt. Could he discern the murmur of voices?" No. He could not be sure. Stealthily, he crept around the corner of the barn, found the front door and lifted the bar holding it shut. The door creaked open on rusty hinges. He slid through and pulled the door shut behind him. A leather strap looped for fastening over a nail held the door shut from the inside. He stood stock still for several moments, absorbing the darkness, the sounds of livestock, and enjoying the respite from wind and rain. From a small tin box, he withdrew a match, struck it into flame and held it high. The light revealed four stalls, a horse in each of them. Saddles and riding gear lay strewn on the straw covered floor where they had been stripped from the horses. Moving closer to the stalls, he could see that they had not been cared for and had been put away wet. The match went out. Darkness. Another match flared. He found a lantern hanging from a hook on an upright supporting beam. The match light died, but the next match lasted until he had lit the lantern and adjusted the wick. On closer inspection, he could see the straw had been trampled and there was a well used path to a tack room doorway at the back of the barn.. Drawing his six gun, he held the lantern high looking for the latch. Carefully, he released it. His body tensed, ready for what may lay in waiting for him beyond the door. With a tremendous pull, he flung the door outward, half crouching to a gunman’s stance, his pistol cocked and ready to fire. He held himself in check as he stared at the scene before him. He was staring into the wild eyes of a gray haired man and a young girl, each one on adjacent walls of the tack room tied with arms spread eagled above their heads with ropes dangling from the rafters. Muffled sounds of terror came through the dirty rag cloths that were tied tightly in their mouths as gags. Quickly, Jack sheathed his gun and set the lantern on the floor, drew his knife from a scabbard in his boot, and slashed through the rags. "Keep quiet, I’m here to get you out." He slashed at the bonds holding the girl’s wrist, and caught her beneath her arms as she collapsed into his strong hands. Gently, he lowered her to the floor and propped her against the wall. Then turning to the Senator, he did the same. Kneeling on the floor in front of them he waited for them to compose themselves and refresh their lungs. "Take it easy. I’ll be right back." He whirled taking the lantern with him and soon returned with a canteen that had been left with one of the saddles. Holding it to the girl’s lips, he said, "Just a sip, take it slow." She coughed and her face contorted with the surprise of the liquid. Jack sniffed at the open mouth of the canteen. "Whiskey! Sorry miss, I should have known these men wouldn’t drink water. Try another sip, it may help you just the same. "This time she gulped it. Then a second gulp. "That’s enough, "Jack said. Then offered it to the Senator. He drank greedily, then lowered the canteen and passed it back to Jack
"Thanks, son?" Who are you and how did you find us?"
"I’m Jack Clayton. I was sent to get you."
"Did you bring the ransom money?"
"No, I’m taking you out of here."
"Alone?" the Senator queried incredulously. "These men are killers. I’ve counted six of them. I don’t know how many more there might be."
"Six? There’s only four horses here."
"The others must be guarding the bridge across the canyon. Didn’t you see them?"
"I didn’t come across the bridge. I came from the other end of the canyon."
The senator’s gray brow arched. "How?" You couldn’t…….."
"Never mind now." Then to the girl, "Are you, all right?" Did they hurt you?" He glanced toward the senator. He shook his head. The girl answered. "No, but they would have. How can we thank you?"
"Never mind. We’re not out of here yet and if we are going to, we’d better get to it. This storm is good cover, but it will be difficult to find our way out. Those hombres inside the house probably didn’t want to come out in the storm to check on you, but they will when the storm clears. When they find the barn door unlocked from the outside, they’ll be on guard.
"Senator, if you are up to it, can you stand guard at the door and watch for them, while I get the horses ready?"
"Just help me to my feet, son."
With the lantern lighting the way, they left the tack room. The Senator leaned against the barn door and peered through a crack into the darkness outside. "Looks like the storm is starting to subside. We’d better hurry, Jack."
Sally was resting on a bale of hay while Jack hurriedly tended to the horses; rubbing them down, feeding them a few handfuls of grain and then attending to saddles and bridles. Both hands were full of saddle as he was about to throw it on the third horse when it happened.
The door burst open, a blast of wind surging through the gaping opening. The senator fell backward to the floor, flat on his back. A flash of flame and deafening roar of a six gun filled the
Two more men had rushed in behind him, but Jack’s repeated triggering of his weapon cut them down, there own shots going wild as they were struck down. A third man stood in the open doorway, hands raised and pleading. "D..don’t shoot. Please for God’s sake." Jack eased out of his crouch to a standing position. He could see the man’s left arm was bandaged.
"All right. No sudden moves. Throw your gun on the floor and come forward so I can see you."
The man did as told and moved into the lantern light. "Well, well," Jack chided, "Trigger Murphy. So we meet again. I thought I left you dead at the bottom of Dead Man’s Gulch."
Murphy glared from beneath his dirty black beard. "If I had known it was you Jack, I wouldn’t have given up this easy. It ain’t over. You’ll never get out of here alive. The boys will stop you at the bridge."
"If I don’t, you won’t either." Jack glanced at the doorway. He could see the rain was settling down to a mist and the grayness of dawn was approaching. "How many are there?" He nodded toward the cabin. Murphy shrugged.
"Senator," Jack called. "You and your daughter get those slickers and hats off those men and put them on. Take their guns if you know how to use them. You may have to." The Senator looked puzzled; then glanced at Sally. She was still shaking, but nodded her understanding and joined her father in making preparations. Turning to Murphy, Jack said, "You’re going with us. We’ll just be your three buddies here, and your pals will let us across the bridge."
"Yeah, that’s what you think, "Trigger sneered.
"But my arm…." He protested.
"Too bad. Get it done." Clayton growled.
Murphy’s lips pursed as he grudgingly moved forward and picked up the saddle.
Bridge of Peril