Their quarry was now mounted, riding double on a strong black stallion and racing across the moonlit valley. Rio leaped forward and threw shot after shot after them. Colby and Rafe slid to his side firing just as rapidly. But the great horse was too fast, even with the double weight and was quickly out of range.
Realizing the uselessness of continued fire or even pursuit, the shooters resigned themselves to defeat. “That miserable Dark Rider has interfered with us too many times,” Colby growled, glaring at Rio. “You’d better find out who that jigger is and kill him. I want you to make sure Chavez is dead too. You should have made sure the first time. I’m sick of your bungling.”
Anger seething, Rio did not respond as he watched the retreating shadowy figures disappear into the shadows. Icy silence spread over the valley. The huge silvery moon loomed in the chill of a Nevada autumn sky.
The same huge silvery moon loomed in the chill of the Arizona sky bathing the expansive plain in brilliant moonlight. The chilly night air was silent but for the splashing sound of wagon wheels churning through a small winding creek just north of the Arizona and the Mexican border. A team of black horses snorted in protest as the driver’s whip cracked behind their ears, urging them to strain harder and pull the lumbering vehicle out of the creek bed, bouncing on its springs as it lurched up onto the bank. The team felt the resistance lessen as the wheels rolled free onto soft grassy turf. Large billowing plumes attached to the horses’ heads bounced with every move as they lowered their heads and pressed on.
Driver, wagon, and team blended into a strange dark shadowy shape in the moonlight. The wagon was not an ordinary wagon, but a somber toned, boxy , window framed hearse. The driver sat high on the box, his black high top hat and black frock coat covered body were framed against the glow of the full moon.
The strange shadows rolled on for a minute before the driver pulled the team to a halt to let them blow. He sat casually on the box and examined his surroundings carefully. The moonlight glinted off the rugged somber face of the driver. His view took in the expanse of flat land to his left and in front off him dotted with sparse growth of vegetation. To his right stood a high bluff. His keen eyes peered deeply into the darkness, methodically scanning the bluff from one end to the other. It would be a good place for a man to watch any activity below and in the brilliant moonlight, the preacher and his hearse could easily be seen.
The preacher removed his top hat revealing a neatly trimmed head of black ,wavy hair, pulled out a large white handkerchief and shook it in the breeze before wiping his neck and brow. Stuffing the handkerchief back into his pocket, he glanced back up toward the bluff. Then placing his tall hat back on his head , took up the reins and clucked to his team. The hearse rolled forward and continued into the night as a man atop a brown horse watched intently from the top of the bluff.
The man was young, blond hair showing beneath his gray Stetson. He had been waiting for the hearse to arrive. The time was getting short now. He had to be alert.
His horse nickered as he reined him to the left and prodded his ribs, putting the animal in motion. He held a tight rein though as he guided his mount slowly across the butte, riding almost parallel to, but a little behind the hearse, keeping it in sight at all times. He dared not lose sight of the preacher and he must not move too fast. He must not be seen.
Occasionally, the preacher would dart a fleeting glance upward toward the bluff but did not want to appear obvious. With each glance, he saw nothing. That was good. He shouldn’t. The man on the bluff was doing a good job. The hearse lumbered on for a quarter mile.
From his vantage point high on the bluff, the young man could see far ahead and to the left of the hearse. The hearse was now in a hollow of the rolling expanse. The young man pulled his horse to a halt, for he could see two riders approaching the team from the other side of the ridge from where the hearse was. Off to the young man’s right on the other side of the bluff, he gazed off into the dark valley below. Nothing seemed to move down there and the brilliant light of the moon only cast deep dark shadows of the butte into the valley. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat as he gulped with resignation. He hoped the men were in that valley where they should be.
He urged his horse forward, watching the hearse climb to the top of the ridge and pull to a halt as the riders rode up to meet him.
The preacher pulled his team to a halt as the two men approached and halted beside him. In the moonlight, the preacher could easily make out the features of the riders. One was a heavy man of about thirty, dressed slovenly and several days growth of black beard on his puffy jaws. The other was younger, just as unkempt, with a shock of long, greasy, red hair hanging below his stoved in hat, and lying in stringy strands on his narrow shoulders.
“Purdy and Stoner?” The preacher asked curtly.
“That’s right,” the stocky one answered. “I’m Purdy. This is Stoner.” He thumbed at his companion. “Anyone on your trail?”
“No,” the preacher answered flatly. “I’ve done this enough times that nobody notices an undertaker on his duty.” He chuckled. “Just show me the way. Let’s get this over with.”
“O.K.,” Purdy said reeling his mount and riding forward. Stoner followed suit. The undertaker clucked to his team and slapped the reins across their backs. The team started forward, straining in their harness to overcome the inertia.of the parked hearse with its heavy load. As the wheels began to turn, the burden seemed to lessen and they lumbered on into the night following the guides.
Purdy and Stoner led the undertaker on a winding trek though a grove of pinion trees, over a grassy knoll into a narrow valley. They rode on for about ten minutes before the valley opened wide and poured out into a large expanse of flat grassland. Directly ahead were the shapes of several buildings. As they rolled closer, the undertaker could make out the features of a large two story ranch house, brightly lighted on the first floor. About fifty yards to the left of the house were two low unpretentious structures. One appeared to be a one story bunk house and the other halfway between it and the house was probably a cookhouse. Another fifty yards to the right was a large barn with an attached corral behind it. Several head of horses milled about chewing on hay from the mangers. A wagon and a harnessed four up stood at the ready outside the corral.
Two large barn doors, swinging away from each other left a wide gaping maw into the barn. Lanterns had been placed at intervals along the driveway toward the barn and the inside of the barn was lit as well, revealing several men busy in a hub of activity.
The two guides led the undertaker along the path and separated, pulling their mounts to the side as they neared the open doors, and motioned the hearse driver to drive straight into the barn.
“Whoa! Whoa!” the preacher commanded, leaning back, pulling the reins tight. The horses nickered in protest as they felt their heads restrained, being pull back and high. They stamped to a halt and blew as they felt the reins relax.
Several men were gathering around, crowding the wagon and team. All were in range clothing and heavily armed. A stocky man with huge shoulders and a neatly trimmed black mustache punctuating his round florid face, stepped forward. Obviously in charge.
“Mr. uh…Smith, I presume,” the man cajoled. “I’m Ace Murdock. I assume you’ve got the goods.”
“That’s right I have, sir. Smuggling across the border is easy for a man of the cloth,” the preacher/undertaker half grinned with self satisfaction. “I always deliver.” Then added coolly, “and I always get paid.”
“Oh, you’ll get paid alright, Mr. Smith. Now how about getting down from there and let’s have a look at the goods.” Murdock responded nonchalantly, and stepped back a little, making room for the man in the long black coat and hat to step down, stride to the rear of the hearse and open the rear doors.
Murdock peered inside. There were three coffins cramped close to each other, as there was no r
oom for anything else. Murdock nodded approval, stepped back and motioned to the men around him. “Get them out of there so we can take a look.” Then to the man in black. “Right this way Mr. Smith. We’ll get you your money.” He led him to the side out of the way of the unloading, and to a tool bench, cluttered with nails and leather. A black leather satchel sat in the middle of the bench.
The preacher reached quickly for the bag, but Murdock grabbed the bag first and held it tight to his thick midsection. “Not yet, my friend. After we open the coffins.” The tall man in black eyed him with offense, then glanced back to the men opening the coffins. They had the lids off now and they stood in silent admiration of the gleaming silver bars packed neatly inside.
“Satisfied?” The preacher asked snidely.
“Not yet,” Murdock answered, “but I will be.” His Colt snaked out of the holster at his wide hip, and the barrel pressed hard into the undertaker’s stomach muscles. The hammer clicked back. A smile of triumph spread across Murdock’s thick lips. “Now get your hands up and keep them up!” He demanded, reaching under ‘Mister Smith’s’ coat and feeling for the pistol he knew was riding in an underarm holster rig.
“What is this?” the preacher protested. “This some kind of double cross to get out of paying?”
Murdock smiled as he retrieved the pistol and stuffed it into his belt. “Yes, it’s a double cross alright. But I believe you’re the double crosser, Mister G-Man.”
Jack Clayton knew their was no need to protest or pretend. His cover had been blown. He said nothing, just waited to find out what had gone wrong. His cool blue eyes stared levelly into Murdock’s porky face.
“I must thank you for the silver though.” Murdock chided. “We have plans for it.”
“Unfortunately,” Clayton smiled. “You won’t get far with it. You didn’t think I’d come here alone. There’s marshals all around this place. You might as well give it up right now.”
“I’m sure you believe that’s true, but unfortunately for you, you are sadly mistaken.” Murdock giggled confidently, the flab around his thick neck shaking like a bowl of jelly.
No comment from Jack. He waited for the rest of it. Murdock was savoring the taunt.
“Spence!” Murdock called, pointing his chin toward the rear of the barn.
From out of the shadows, a lean, scruffy henchman appeared, dragging a form behind him. As he stepped into the light so Jack could get a good look, he violently shoved the dead body of a young, fair haired man at Clayton’s feet.
Jack’s eyes darkened with anger and hatred. The young man was green to the business of law and had hardly had time to live. Now he was cut down for doing his job. He had been watching from the butte to see where Clayton was being led. Once he knew the destination, he was to have notified the marshals and their men at the foot of the butte and brought them here to apprehend the receivers of smuggled silver.
“You see Mister Clayton. He never got a chance to bring your men. Too bad for you.”
“You still won’t get away with it.” Clayton bluffed. “When they don’t get the word, they’ll come looking anyways.”
“Jack, Jack, Jack.” A smooth voice chided from behind him. Clayton turned slightly to the side, still eyeing Murdock. He saw the man out of the corner of his eye, not really seeing him until he stepped around to face him. He knew who he was even before the man stepped into clear vision. “You never give up trying. When will you ever learn?” Then man was a tall good looking man, about Jack’s age and build. He wore a black broad cloth suit and a black flat crowned hat with a band of shiny conchos that matched the shiny conchos adorning his fancy hand tooled black buscadero gunbelt, sporting two holsters with matched pearl handled sixguns riding low on his hips and protruding beneath his suit coat.
“I was wondering when you were going to tip your hand, Tom.” Clayton said flatly without surprise.
“Like you had a clue. Come off it Jack. I had you all fooled. And I’ll keep on fooling them all.”
“I already told the men to wait in the woods in Grass Valley. We won’t take the silver anywhere near there.” Tom said triumphantly.
Jack still tried to bluff, trying to exude some confidence. “They’ll wait only so long. When nothing happens, they’re going to come looking.”
“Still trying, aren’t you, Jack?” Tom came back. “Sorry, it won’t work. Something is going to happen. We’re going to give them something to chase while the silver goes elsewhere.”
Again Jack waited. Tom was keeping the best part for last. He couldn’t wait to continue his boast.
“I suppose you don’t want to know what they are going to chase.”
“I’m sure you’re going to tell me anyways.” Jack said with resignation.
Tom turned to look to the rear of the hearse. The coffins had been emptied of the silver bars. The lids lay strewn on the straw covered floor of the barn. “Nice coffins,” Tom said. “I’ll bet you’ll find one nice and comfortable.”
Again Jack shrugged.
“How about you go over there and pick one out. He drew his right hand pistol and eared back the hammer. “And get in it.” He ordered with a snarl through his even white teeth.
Jack eyed him squarely and turned toward the coffins. “I guess it’s past my bed time, anyways,” Jack said as he shuffled forward and halted at the first coffin. “Let me guess,” said Jack. “You’re going to ship me to the marshals.”
“Very good, Jack.” Tom chided. “They’ll think the silver is still in the hearse. We’ll send along two guards on horses and a driver sitting right up front with the preacher man himself.”
Jack tipped his head quizzically. Tom continued. “They will think I’m you on the box.”
“And you’ll all be captured.” Clayton said.
Jack stepped in.
“Wait a minute!” Tom ordered. “Murdock, get that hat and coat off him.”
“One more thing, Jack.” Tom said after Murdock had done his bidding. “We thought you might like some company, so we are going to use a second coffin. That one will be filled with dynamite and gunpowder. Your marshals are going to get a big bang out of you.”
“A little late for the fourth of July, Tom.” Jack sat in the box and stretched out.
“But just in time for Halloween, Jack. Trick or treat.”
Murdock placed the lid on the coffin, leaving Jack in total blackness.
Jack breathed deeply. The past few minute of trying to keep his composure had been a strain. Now he could let panic pour over him. What to do now? Was this finally the end for him? His thoughts were drowned out by the hammering of nails into the coffin lid. The hammering echoed in his ears and the box vibrated on all sides and beneath him. His heart started to pound and his breathing increased rapidly. Then willing himself to relax, he told himself he must get his fear under control. He must slow his breathing. Had to conserve air. Make what little he had last.
Once the hammering stopped, he could concentrate on the task at hand. He breathed deeply and let it out slowly, gradually slowing the rising and falling of his chest and had just gotten it under control when he felt the coffin being lifted. He felt the thud of the coffin against the hearse floor. He vaguely could hear the loading of the other coffin and the closing of the hearse doors. Then he felt the hearse move beneath him as the horses backed it out of the barn and far enough down the driveway to turn around and head off pulling their load into the coolness of the night air.
THE DEATH OF JACK CLAYTON
Clayton could feel every bump as the coffin jostled with the spring of the hearse and the scrape of the wheels over rocks and chuckholes. He had to act fast. He had to get out before he either ran out of air or the w
agon encountered the marshals.
His gun had been taken from him, but they had not examined his boot where he kept a well concealed stiletto knife. He had to reach it and get it out. With the knife, he could try to pry open the lid. But first he had to get the knife.
His body was crunched into the coffin, his arms stretched down his legs but he couldn’t rise enough to bend his body and reach his boot. Stretching and straining, he was finally able to bend his knees a little, bringing his boot top a little closer, but not enough. His fingers stretched until they hurt, his thighs ached until a charley horse set in, the pain forcing him to relax a moment. The wagon lumbered on.
Again and again he tried to reach his boot. Again and again, he failed. Heat was building up in the close confines of the coffin. Sweat poured down his brow and dripped into his eyes. They burned. Then finally, his finger tips touched the top of his boot. Almost. Almost. The hearse lurched and he lost his position once more. Try again. Again. Again. The he had it; the thumb and forefinger over the top of the knife handle. Slowly it slid free, more fingers sliding onto it. Then they curled into a grip and the knife slipped out of the boot.
Holding back his excitement, he raised the knife over his body and felt for the edges of the coffin and lid. He felt the corner and plunged the blade into the joint. The point of the blade merely stuck in the wood. Jack pulled it back out and plunged the blade in again and again; making little progress for the close confines did not afford leverage room for strong stabs.
His body rocked from side to side as the wagon trudged onward over some very rough terrain, but still he diligently continued his attack on of the coffin lid.
From his vantage point in the shadows among the trees, Marshal Lon Cramer sat patiently in his saddle and peered out into Grass Valley. His gray mare stamped nervously beneath him and his posse of two deputy marshals and three volunteers huddled close behind him. The night chill was increasing and hot breath from horses and riders clouded in a mist about them. For an hour they had sat here, watching, waiting. The bright moonlight lit the valley before them with a brilliant sheen. They would be able to see their quarry plainly when they entered the valley.