New Mexico Territory, 1883
Damned if life wasn’t full of downright pathetic ironies.
Jack Ketchum drew in deep on his cigarette and pondered why it had to come to this. A son hunting down his own father. Kin exacting justice from kin.
Blood against blood.
He squinted through a swirl of slowly exhaled smoke. A grim blanket of sadness settled over his shoulders, weighing him down with regret. Until he reminded himself that Sam Ketchum needed saving from himself. And if Jack didn’t save him, no one would.
He shivered and thought fleetingly of the hour. Had to be midnight, at least. Probably later. The air’s chill had seeped into his bones, and he craved the warmth and comfort of the small apartment he kept in Colorado.
Unfortunately, partaking in those comforts wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Comforts far different than the life his father had chosen. A life on the run. An outlaw’s life. Hiding out somewhere deep in the rugged Sierra Grande Mountains, protected by a night so black, so thick, it seemed no posse could ever find him.
But Jack would. He had to. Or else it’d just be a matter of time until his father wound up dead.
Sam Ketchum would find it mildly amusing his only son had turned lawman. That Jack rode with men determined to arrest him and his brother, Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum. Along with their gang, the pair had made a reputation for themselves robbing trains, banks and anything else loaded with loot ripe for taking. For too long, their greed had hurt innocent people and ruined countless lives – including Jack’s and the one woman who meant the world to him. His mother.
Like it or not, Sam would have to accept the time had come for it all to end.
Jack studied the glowing tip of his cigarette. The ‘somehow’ part scared him, and the longer it took for Jack and the posse to track the gang down, the more likely it’d be the outlaw brothers would catch wind of it, then who knew which rock they’d hide under? Or where?
A new wave of resolve swelled through him, and his glance shifted toward the fire burning low in the nearby camp. Around it, six men filled bedrolls – four of them lawmen like himself, the other two agents for the Colorado and Southern Railroad Company. Heavily armed even in sleep, each one was as fiercely dedicated to enforcing the law as Jack.
Patience, he knew. He just needed patience to find his father and bring him in for his own good.
Jack’s thighs protested his hunkered stance, and given that his spell as night watch was just about up, he grasped his rifle and lifted the cigarette to his lips for a final drag, inhaling as he straightened.
Halfway to standing, a rock crunched behind him.
His every muscle coiled. But he kept moving, until he stood at full height.
He didn’t turn around. Not yet. Instinct told him it wasn’t an animal behind him, at least not one from the wild. Instead, this creature stood on two legs, was likely armed, and judging from the stark silence, he was standing stock-still, watching Jack real close.
“You’re Sam Ketchum’s son, aren’t you?” a low voice said.
The question surprised Jack. Sam Ketchum’s son. Who out here on this mountain would know him like that?
He flicked the cigarette stub, sending it sailing in a neat arc into the rough buffalo grass. He tightened his grasp on his rifle and took his time answering.
“Who’s asking?” he demanded finally.
“No one you know.”
“Yet you know me.”
Iron control kept Jack from turning, to put a face to the voice in the darkness. He didn’t know what he was up against, or what this man wanted from him. Mostly, he didn’t know if he’d live or die, shot in the back at any given moment . . ..
“It seems I do know you, yes,” the voice purred. “Better than you think.”
“And you know my father, too.”
“Quite well, as a matter of fact.”
Jack’s curiosity raged. The man’s words carried a faint accent. French, maybe, but too slight to be native-born. Each word was refined, articulate. Cleverly taunting.
What was his association with Sam Ketchum? And why had he sought out Jack?
“You’re looking for your father, aren’t you?” the voice asked smoothly, reading Jack’s thoughts. “You and your posse.”
His glance lifted toward the fire and the men sleeping around it, each oblivious to the stranger – and that he’d found them all on this desolate, unforgiving mountain in the middle of the night.
“Yes,” Jack said.
“I know where he is.”
Jack stilled. “How do you know?”
“I just do.”
Suddenly impatient with the man’s game, Jack swore, tossed his rifle to the ground and heard it land with a dull thud. He well realized the risk he took leaving himself unshucked, but the man had to know Jack wasn’t a threat, not when the stranger had gone to great lengths to seek him out. Jack figured he came for one of two reasons: to help him or to hurt him.
He hoped it was the former.
He lifted his hands and half twisted to confront the stranger, to see a face and demand a name, but a snarled oath and the sharp snap of a jerked-back hammer convinced Jack of his mistake.
“Damn you, don’t turn around,” the voice hissed.
“Where is he?” Jack demanded through his teeth. “Tell me where my father is.”
The faint crunch of a boot heel on rocky ground warned the stranger had taken a step back. One, then another. Jack’s heart pounded from the very real possibility the stranger would disappear without revealing Sam Ketchum’s whereabouts.
“There’s a cave in a hill not far from the Cimarron. The base of Capulin Mountain, this side of Folsom,” the voice rumbled. “Sam will be there, hiding out with Black Jack and the rest of the gang.”
Hope soared inside Jack. A pathetic need to believe. To trust this man and all he claimed. “If you’re lying, I swear – .”
“They’ll be there,” the voice repeated coldly. “Waiting for the Fort Worth and Denver Express, due in two days’ time.”
Metal jangled softly against metal, and it took Jack a moment to realize the sound came from saddle rigging. He whirled, his glance raking through the darkness to grasp the indistinct shape of a tall man with long hair leaping onto his mount, his arm encased in a heavily-fringed jacket sleeve.
Then, before Jack could stop him, horse hooves rumbled, and the stranger was gone.
* * *
Only a fool would’ve attempted to ride down the mountain blinded by the night. Rocky trails so narrow, so winding, one misstep would send an unsuspecting horse hurtling over the steep edge into crippling oblivion, and then what would they have done?
It’d required every shred of Jack’s patience to wait until the night lifted and dawn crept in. By the time it did, the posse was up and ready to ride, daring to trust in the stranger’s information, yet prepared for his betrayal, too. Who knew how far Sam and Black Jack would go to keep the law off their trail? Including Sam’s own son?
But the stranger hadn’t betrayed them, and they located the cave with unerring accuracy. Jack found it damned unsettling to hide in the brush to spy on the gang while they moved about their camp. Every glimpse of his father twisted like a knife deep in his belly.
For reasons Jack couldn’t yet fathom, the stranger wanted Sam Ketchum set up for arrest. But for Jack, it was more important to keep his father from robbing yet another express train – and to forever end his life of crime.
“Getting late, Jack. If we don’t move in on ‘em now, we’re going to lose our chance.”
Sheriff Edward Farr headed up the posse, but he took sympathy on Jack’s situation. He’d been more than patient, giving Jack the time he needed to prepare himself for what lay ahead.
“I know,” Jack said, grim.
The lawman heaved a troubled sigh. “Things are likely to get ugly for your pa and uncle, but there’s a woman in that gang.”
“I know that, too.”
Bess Reilly, rumored to be as tough and ruthless as any man. But Jack figured if she committed a man’s crime, she had to pay the price like one.
“I got a bad feeling about this, Jack. Real bad.” Farr shifted, as if to settle the nerves squirming inside him.
Jack didn’t bother to respond, not after his stare locked on movement at the front of the cave. If Sam Ketchum could’ve heard their scheming, he never would’ve reappeared right then, and seeing him with his heavy gun belt strapped around his hips, his glance sliding one way and then the other in careful inspection of his surroundings, Jack knew what he had to do.
“I’m going in first,” he said.
“Not alone, you’re not,” the lawman said in a rough whisper.
“Maybe I can get him to listen to me.”
“He won’t.” The retort dripped with disgust. “You know he won’t.”
Jack didn’t bother denying it, but he clutched his rifle and eased out of the brush. His father moseyed over to a stand of trees and began to unbutton the front of his pants.
Jack kept going. The muted rustle of cocked weapons assured him of six men’s protection. He strode closer to the infamous Sam Ketchum, and suddenly, time fell away, and he was a little boy again, hungry for the love and attention he’d long been denied – .
Except Sam Ketchum had always been a sorry excuse for a father, and wasn’t it a hell of a shame that it had to come to this? His own son sneaking up on him with a rifle pointed at his back while he took a piss?
Hell of a shame, all right. And Jack swallowed hard against the ugly truth. He didn’t trust Sam Ketchum any farther than he could spit.
“Sorry to interrupt, old man, but there’s a thing or two we need to talk about,” he drawled.
The muscles in Sam’s shoulders jerked. Jack kept a keen eye on those revolvers hanging in their holster, but his father merely finished with nature’s call and set about refastening his pants.
“Well, now. Damned if it isn’t my boy I’m hearin’ behind me,” Sam drawled back.
My boy. Jack’s gut went tight.
“Fancy that,” he said.
His father casually lifted his hands and turned to face him. Jack steeled himself against the familiarity of that thick moustache, those cheeks always in need of shaving.
“If I’d a-known you were comin’ to call, I would’ve prepared a right proper welcome for you,” Sam said.
“The hell you would.”
“You’re surrounded, just so you know.”
Sam nodded once. Unaffected. “I figured.”
“Tell the others to give up. We can end this without blood spilling.”
“How did you find me?”
His father’s voice had turned guttural, and Jack glimpsed the hard side of him. The ruthless part that earned him the reputation for being one of the most notorious outlaws in the territory.
“A friend of yours enlightened me,” he said.
“Who?” he demanded sharply.
Jack lifted a shoulder in a careless shrug. ”I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, besides.”
“It matters to me!”
“Someone wanted you found as much as I did. He did me a favor.”
Sam’s lip curled beneath the moustache. “A favor.”
Impatience rolled through Jack. His father’s arrest wasn’t going to happen while they stood here, exercising their jaws, wasting valuable time and increasing the chances of detection by the rest of the gang.
“You’re at the end of the line, old man,” Jack said in a terse voice. “Throw down your shooting irons. You’re coming with us.”
Sam eyed the tin star on Jack’s coat with contempt. “Just ‘cuz you’re workin’ for the law these days don’t mean I’m gonna do what you tell me to do.”
“Someone has to save your sorry ass.”
“My ass don’t need savin’, boy,” he snapped. “Ride out of here while you still can. And take that damn posse with you.”
Jack’s grip tightened on his rifle. “Can’t do that.”
A lethal, sober calm seemed to come over Sam. For long moments, he didn’t move. “Then I got no choice but to do what I gotta do.”
Jack’s blood pounded, hard in his veins.
Lightening quick, Sam grabbed for his guns. “Now, Tom!”
And before Jack could fathom the signal, before he could anticipate his uncle tearing out of the shadows, a blaze of gunfire erupted in front of him, behind him, around him. A deafening explosion of vengeance and desperation, of law against the lawless, of hate and honor and determination . . ..
But as if time moved in slow motion, Jack was aware of only his father and that he lifted and leveled his revolver. Of the hammer cocked back and the bullet catapulting toward him. Of the burn screaming across his cheek – .
And because he was Sam Ketchum’s son, capable of fury and vengeance, too, Jack reacted with his aim just as deadly, his hand moving split-second fast over the rifle, his heart cold against the way the bullet spun his father’s body and threw him into the dirt.
As fast as it started, the gun battle ended. Sheriff Farr laid dead, alongside the rest of his posse, each of them victims to their dedication to the law. The Ketchum gang laid, too, scattered like rag dolls, paying the price for the wrongs they’d committed.
Only Black Jack managed to escape, leaving his brother behind to die at the hands of his son.
Jack lowered the rifle and held it loosely at his side. He strode toward his father. Face ashen, his shoulder shattered and blood-soaked, Sam struggled to breathe.
“Looks like you won, don’t it, boy?” he rasped.
Jack didn’t bother to explain it wasn’t about winning or losing. Not anymore. Was it ever?
Dispassionate, he stood – and waited for his father’s time to come.
“I gotta know . . . who set me up,” Sam said, the demand weak, but obsessive. “Find him for me, y’hear? Will you do that . . . for your ol’ man, Jack?”
Jack had done what he set out to do.
But he’d failed. Failed in the worst way.
Then, Sam Ketchum’s eyes rolled toward the back of his head, and his body sagged into death.
Blood ran in rivulets down Jack’s cheek, but he was beyond feeling the pain. His hand lifted to the tin star he wore over his heart. For a moment, he cradled the badge in his palm and pondered all it stood for. Justice and honor and pride.
In grim finality, he tossed the star downward . . . where it landed tarnished on his father’s chest.
Another pathetic irony in his life.
Cold to it, he walked away.