Chapter 7: Sniper Syndrome

Parables of the Beautiful Country

by Jack E’Dalgo

Chapter 7: Sniper Syndrome

“Southern boys of all classes were given a surprising amount of freedom as children so as not to limit their aggressiveness or to feminize them with a strict discipline that would break their spirits. At an early age they learned independence… began their tutelage in hunting, the handling of firearms, and horseback riding… Courtesy, spirit, and firmness were all part of the curriculum of individualism that Southern sons learned but care was taken not to undermine their self-confidence or pride.” – Gary L Roberts. Doc Holliday. The Life and Legend.

Holliday woke with a start and took a moment to orient himself. He was in a bed beside Kate. In a tent. A roomy Silbey tent, but a tent all the same. He could hear the rush of water in the distance and the tent palpitated with the occasional light gust. It was still dark and the chill of twilight crept up from the ground beneath the bed. Insect and animal sounds were muffled. Holliday recalled his location and the day that brought him to this. Neither remembrance was much of a comfort.

The effort it took to sit up on the side of the bed made him moan involuntarily. He stifled a coughing fit and felt Kate’s cool hand against the small of his naked back, a question and an invitation in its comforting stroke.

“Are you still hurtin’, Kitty-Kate?”

“John, I told you I’m fine.” Her voice was raspy from sleep. “Do you want me?”

He reached for her in the darkness, felt her uncurling for him beneath the furs. “Always,” he admitted, then quickly released her. “You go back to sleep, dahrlin’. I just… I just need to move.”

He felt the barest shifting in the bed as she obeyed. He pulled on his trousers and boots and located his dressing gown before rising to open the flue on the stove, stoke the coals and clear the ash from yesterday’s fire. It was dark as the grave inside the tent and he operated with the instinct of a man who had never known light.

He needed Kate. He needed coffee. He needed tobacco. He needed a good shot of whiskey. He needed a shave. He needed to saddle his horse and check his weapons. Mostly he needed air. He stepped out into the darkness to see what he could find.

The foothills surrounding the camp kept direct sunlight hostage most of the morning, but the sky itself was brightening in a false dawn at last. It at least provided sufficient light for Masterson to get around without falling over his own feet. The nights were terrifically dark here and Masterson decided he had been a city-dweller too long. It had spoiled whatever attractions the outdoors life had ever held for him.

Masterson was grateful he’d managed to strike his tent so close to one of the deeper areas of Grape Creek. Deep enough to drop in a roped bucket and pull it up again before it scooped up silt from the creek bed. Masterson needed coffee and a shave, thus he needed water.

There was a man fishing the bank a ways down when he arrived at the creek and they exchanged silent salutes. The water was cold, being mountain snow melt, but it was still warmer than the air this almost-morning and a fine fog lay across the gash of the creek. Cicada and mourning doves competed with the rasping of the wind. Masterson retrieved his bucket and headed back toward his tent.

He wasn’t half-way back when he recognized a tall, lean figure several tents to his right. The man was looking down the barrel of a rifle. The muzzle was pointed upward so Masterson didn’t take it personally and approached the man.

“Morning, Doc.”

“Mornin’.” Holliday had lowered the weapon and breached the barrel checking the load. Beside him, his horse was saddled and Holliday slid the Springfield single shot into its scabbard on the mare’s saddle.

In addition to the Springfield, there was another scabbard on the horse’s off-side, its weapon already in the leather.

Always interested in the minutiae of another’s survival, Masterson noted Holliday’s saddle-setup. Both rifle-butts were mounted vertically, barrels down, at the front of his saddle, balanced one to each side. Masterson realized this would make either weapon easy to reach either while mounted or in a relatively smooth manner when dismounting. Masterson himself had always mounted his rifle to the rear, almost horizontally, the barrel under his saddle fender. He’d never seen a rifle mounted otherwise despite years of buffalo hunting.

He half wondered if Holliday could shoot well from the saddle or if this positioning was merely a habit learned at the hand of male ancestry. Given Holliday’s compromised weight, Masterson couldn’t imagine him using a rifle while mounted. The recoil would surely blast him off the horse.

“Doc, you make me feel positively indolent this morning. I haven’t even had coffee.”

“I have coffee.” Holliday jerked his head toward the tent. “Just don’t wake Kate.”

Masterson appreciated the offer, but there were some places an intelligent man didn’t go without a six-gun to his head, and walking alone into a tent with another man’s wife was one of those places. Especially when her man was this well-heeled.

Holliday continued with his saddling and armaments, checking girth and cinch. Masterson noted that he didn’t seem particularly chatty this morning. Of course, Holliday kept gambler’s hours and Masterson had only seen Holliday before three in the afternoon a handful of times in the entire year he’d known him. This could simply be morning Holliday for all he knew.

“I’m sorry to be getting up so late,” Masterson said by way of conversation. “I couldn’t sleep last night. Too much nervous energy, I guess.”

“Nervous energy,” Holliday observed, “is what God invented women to burn out of ya.”

“Did He? I always wondered.”

Inside the tent, something clattered and Masterson heard Kate say something that was not in English and not said in joy.

“When will you be ready to ride?” Holliday asked at last.

“Ah, half an hour.”

Holliday nodded. “I’ll ride over to your tent when I’m done.”

Masterson realized he had been dismissed and almost sprinted back to his own tent.

By the time Holliday rode up to Masterson’s tent, Bat was making a final inspection of his gear and tack. Masterson was hungry, unshaven and, in the interest of time, had dressed in the clothes he’d worn the day before. But his flaxen sorrel was saddled, his Henry rifle tucked under the saddle fender, his pistol in its accustomed holstered above his hip. He’d even had most of a cup of coffee.

In the brighter light of day, he noted that Holliday was immaculately shaven, dressed in his accustomed gray and black from his hat to his gloves. Even Holliday’s riding boots had a shine to them. Holliday had also had a haircut since he’d reported in last night, a bit uneven here and there but passable. Kate had done a surprisingly decent job with it, Masterson thought.

If Holliday was carrying both Colts, one was surely hidden behind an unbuttoned double-breasted duster. The other Colt hung, cross draw fashion, from a holster high on his waist above his hip similar to Masterson’s own preferred rig. Masterson had never seen Holliday wear a weapon at his hip but he knew Holliday well enough to know he wouldn’t be wearing it if he wasn’t proficient in drawing from it.

Bat felt like a country cousin come to call at the big house. He mounted and they walked their horses out of the camp. Neither had said a word to one another. It was apparently going to be a long day. Somewhere in camp, a delinquent rooster began crowing.

Some 20 minutes later Masterson and Holliday were looking into the mouth of the Royal Gorge, watching teams of mules straining under their cargo up the grade dynamited out of the cliffs.

“Wouldn’t oxen perform better?” Holliday was frowning.

“I wondered that, too,” Masterson admitted. “I was told that oxen aren’t sure-footed enough for the terrain around here.”

Holliday nodded, probably noting the information for future reference. One never knew what bit of trivia could be the difference between life and death out here on the frontier.

When the last of the loads had passed them, Masterson and Holliday entered the gorge themselves. It was an impressive sight, red rock rising to either side of the Arkansas a thousand feet straight up like someone had split the earth’s heart and shoved a river in.

The southern side of the gorge had a narrow shale bank for a fair distance into the gorge, the northern side was simply sheer cliff with the occasional talus slope where the rock had crumbled and collapsed. The river narrowed to fit between the two sides of the gorge, a mere thirty feet in some places, rapids surging as the water protested its confinement.

Masterson and Holliday urged their mounts across the shale, the horses shying away from the torrent that splashed and wrestled scant feet away from their hooves. The men rode in silence for the better part of a quarter-hour, overcome with the savagery of the landscape. There was no sign of wildlife here to speak of, no deer came to drink in these waters, no marmot, no fox. These were not the still waters of the sweet psalmist. This was the River Styx running hot for hell.

“They’re planning on routing an actual working train through here?” Holliday shouted as best he could to be heard above the commotion.

“That’s the plan, Doc.”

“Damn. They’re both insane.”

Masterson pointed upward and about a thousand feet up-canyon. Two men were suspended from the top of the canyon by ropes that looked as flimsy as thread from this distance. Each acrobat seemed to operate some type of hand-held equipment, pointing their apparatuses first this way and then that, pausing to grasp the ropes that held them when the wind gusted, blowing them parallel and sometimes against the walls of the gorge. Coming too close to the canyon walls the men would simply stick out booted feet to keep from being slammed into the unforgiving rock. They communicated between themselves with overly emphatic gestures, but otherwise seemed right at home in their cradles in the sky.

Holliday shook his head in amazement. “Surveyor’s?” he asked.

Masterson nodded and shouted. “More proof of the insanity, Doc. I’ve stared down rutting buffalo bulls, but you couldn’t pay me enough to step off that ledge. There isn’t enough gold in the world to induce me to do that.”

Holliday said, “I should hope to ride this rail someday…” The sentence continued but the remaining words didn’t quite carry over the roar of the rapids. It sounded suspiciously like “–if I can live long enough.” Masterson almost asked him to repeat the statement, but Holliday had urged his grullo forward and she picked her way daintily across the unstable shale.

There was a bend in the canyon, just a slight one, and an unexpected widening of the river bed opened before them. The difference was such a shock to the senses that both men turned to reassure themselves that they had indeed just ridden past the foaming torrent, and yet here the waters ran gently and so clear that they could make out the shadows of blue cat and flannelmouth along the bottom. Masterson and Holliday urged their horses a bit further into this quieter area. The mares seemed as surprised as their riders.

The roar of the rapids behind them faded and was not echoed within this area of the canyon save as a soft hiss. The silence was almost as unnerving as the cacophony had been. Masterson tried whistling softly, some song he could not name and he quickly lost the melody for.

Behind him, Holliday picked up part of the melody and provided words in a soft gravely baritone. Masterson noted Doc translated his languid accent into the words as surely as if he were merely speaking them.

“Ere we reach the shinin’ rivah,

Lay we every burden down,

Christ our spirits will delivah

And provide our robe and a crown.”

Holliday held the last note until an involuntary cough strangled it off. He shuffled in the breast of his coat for his handkerchief. Masterson noted that Holliday turned his back to him as though he were trying to hide the simple act of wiping his mouth. He did the action studiously and was a few minutes turning back. He had already pocketed the handkerchief before he turned forward again. There was nothing amiss with the activity, but Masterson got the impression he was witnessing something other than what he assumed he was seeing, like Holliday and Kate working the marks back at the Long Branch just a few days before.

The shale ran wide into the river here and Holliday allowed his grullo to pick her way into the water up to her hocks, then slackened her reins and let her drink. He looped one knee around his saddle horn and lit yet another panatella.

Masterson admonished, “Doc, those things will kill you.”

“Not reliably,” Holliday countered and puffed contentedly. He offered his cigar case and his match safe.

Masterson brought his horse closer to let her drink her fill while he lit and enjoyed his smoke for a moment. It was suddenly a beautiful, quiet morning again. He thought about Ben Thompson and John Jacob Webb. It was impossible to sit here in this silence and think that anything remotely evil had found the two men.



“Back in Denver, you mentioned you and Kate taking a freight run through Raton Pass this past December.”


“Why the hell were you so anxious to get out of Trinidad that you’d risk something like that in winter? Couldn’t you have waited and taken the stage come spring?”

Holliday said nothing for a moment, then said, “I hear you’re buckin’ ta be marshal of Trinidad, is that correct?”

Masterson shrugged. “Should the opportunity arise, I wouldn’t let it pass.”

“I’ll decline ta answer the question, then.”

“So. Kid Colton? That was you?”

“Why? Is he dead?”

“Damned near. He finally got well enough to move on to California, I heard.”

“California kin have him.”

“You know you just answered my question.”

“Did I?”

“I won’t be hunting you for it, Doc. As far as I’m concerned Colton was a bully and a bastard. He got what he deserved.”

“Ah, The Right Honorable Masterson, future Supreme Court Justice.”

Masterson chuckled. “Like they’d have me.”

“True,” Holliday mused. “They wouldn’t let you near the job. You’ve too much common sense. I’m still not sayin’ that Colton job was me, however. Many things said of me, nothin’ proved kin be–“

Holliday was cut off mid-sentence by a rifle shot from high up the ridge. The delivered bullet spat a hole in the river inches from Holliday’s mare. Both horses startled violently. Masterson, still well-seated and holding his reins, tossed his cigar and quickly regained control of his mount. Holliday, however, had been almost side-saddle, relieving the pressure on his back.

The grullo partially reared but Holliday instinctively kicked loose from his stirrup and slid down her flank. Although stumbling as he landed, he kept his feet under him. He managed to grab the leads as he landed and he let the horse twist a moment, reassuring herself she was unharmed. Maintaining his grip on the leads, Holliday shouted up at the shooter hidden by the rocks, angry beyond logic for a moment.

“Of course ya had ta miss me, didn’t cha, ya son of a bitch!” Holliday actually sounded upset to be still alive.

Masterson let loose with a couple of pistol shots up the ridge, blindly trying to provide cover fire until they weren’t so exposed. He spurred his horse across the shale, grateful they were on the shooter’s side of the canyon, and hoping the uneven slope of the rocks would provide some form of concealment.

But by the time Masterson had reached the drier shale, he realized Holliday was still trying to regain control of his mare. The grullo was now between Holliday and Masterson but the shooter nonetheless would have a clear shot of Holliday from his upper vantage point.

“Doc!” Masterson shouted, “What the hell are you doing?” Masterson spun his horse around, determined to extricate Holliday or at least provide what cover fire he could. Holliday had clearly lost all reason.

Another crack of gunfire and the horn of Holliday’s saddle exploded. The poor grullo had had enough. She bolted downstream at a dead run. Masterson swore again, but Holliday had released the mare. Holliday spun clear from her hooves and brought his rifle, finally cleared from its scabbard, up to bear.

Holliday moved like a man assured of invisibility, scanning the upper horizon for the sign of a muzzle flash. There was another sharp report and gravel danced just past Holliday’s left foot. Holliday focused his aim, feet planted. He fired the Springfield and the report echoed like a cannon blast off the sandstone walls. Holliday rocked under the recoil of the .45-70, his too-thin frame no match for the weapon’s kick, but he managed to remain upright.

A rifle fell from the sky followed closely by a man’s body. Both fell hard on the shale at the water’s edge.

Holliday and Masterson ignored the body, occupied with scoping the upper horizon, looking for a second shooter, this time on both sides of the canyon. Masterson had holstered his Colt and was wielding his Henry, making good use of its Malcolm scope. Holliday meanwhile breached the Springfield and the spent shell ejected its cradle trailing smoke. He reloaded, recocked, all accomplished strictly by feel, his eyes upward, watching the ridge line the while. He puffed his panatella like a steam engine.

Masterson couldn’t help but laugh. Poor Doc. Thrown from his horse, then fighting to reach his rifle, being shot at three times, and taking his own accurate shot, he’d never lost the panatella from his mouth, nor had he let it go out. Masterson knew if it had been his own smoke he would have bitten it in half just in dismounting, and been spitting tobacco for days.

Holliday growled. “Go on and laugh, ya jackass. One of us is goin’ after my horse and it ain’t me, goddammit.” His voice was even more graveled than usual, probably from his efforts to shout earlier. Holliday waded out of the water, the jangle of his spurs only slightly louder than the gravel crunching under his boots. He spoke to the crumpled corpse from around his smoke, “And that’ll teach ya not ta miss next time, ya no-count bastard.”

“So much for chivalry in victory, Doc.”

“Piss on ya, Bat.” Holliday retrieved his hat from the shale, slapping it against his leg, slinging it clear of grit before shoving it onto his head.

An hour later, Masterson and Holliday had exhausted their survey of the lower gorge as far as the beach of shale allowed. The shale disappeared past a talus fall and the landscape was merely canyon at a straight vertical drop into the river. Meantime, the sun had finally risen above the gorge and warmed to the point where the canyon actively reflected the heat like an oven.

They made their way out quickly and rejoined the workers at the eastern end. Masterson explained the body in the gorge to one of the Santa Fe’s security team and several men were sent to retrieve the corpse. The Santa Fe’s resident official would take the body to the coroner in Canyon City and deal with the legalities.

Meanwhile, no one had heard directly from Masterson’s missing men although several reports had surfaced that they were being held by DeRemer’s crew working the Twenty Mile at the west end of the gorge. Two of Masterson’s teams had interrupted the work there at gunpoint to search for Webb and Thompson but had only managed to confirm that neither man was being held in DeRemer’s camp or at Spike Buck.

Masterson and Holliday took their mounts up-slope, seeking the upper level of the gorge. The area wasn’t heavily timbered, but there was plenty of ponderosa and lodgepole pine and quaking aspen. Wildflowers were abundant and both men spotted rabbit, badger, and coyote sign as they covered the ground, searching for hoof prints and footprints. The sun was closer here and brighter. The wind had settled during the night and only the occasional brief breeze brought relief from the full sun on their shoulders. Both riders had shed their outer coats. Holliday’s second Colt had indeed been under wraps, in a shoulder holster. Masterson had gone so far as to unbutton his collar. Holliday, however, was sticking with his usual decorum.

As they scouted, Masterson explained, “DeRemer has built what they call round houses for the Rio’s gunnys to use as a kind of bullet-proof housing. There are about a half dozen of them, capable of holding a couple of men each. Made outta stone, about the size of a small tent with a domed roof. Not high enough to stand in, but a half-decent platform to shoot from, I suppose. The locals are calling this the battle of forts and courts.”

Masterson, usually the chattiest fellow in any room, went on to relate a bit of the history of the Denver & Rio Grande, his personal opinion of the Lincoln County War and the feasibility of the Treaty of Berlin given the state of European politics.

Holliday apparently absorbed all Masterson was telling him, occasionally commenting or at least grunting in all the appropriate places to hold up his end of the conversation. He seemed to be a fairly decent tracker, although Masterson had no idea where the dentist-turned-gambler would have had an opportunity, or need, to learn the skill.

Masterson also noted that Holliday favored his horse, allowing it to rest a minimum of ten minutes for every hour. Masterson couldn’t fault him for it. Holliday hadn’t bought his mare expecting to ride her for an extended time in the thinner mountain air as they were now. The grullo had a fine conformation for easy riding and the occasional run, but she lacked the bigger barrel and more muscular legs of a mountain pony. Both men and horses were breathing heavier than they would have been in Dodge, fighting for the reduced oxygen at this altitude.

Holliday had to know better, but he continued to use the downtime to roll himself a cigarette and smoke it. Masterson figured Holliday did so out of sheer cussedness, despite his lungs already being overtaxed. Several times Masterson bit back the words to berate Holliday over such bloody-mindedness, until it dawned on him that Holliday was not actually inhaling, merely going through the motions, rolling the smokes and letting them burn to ash, only puffing them minimally, like he would a poor cigar.

Holliday also seemed to be using his smoking time as an excuse to review the way they had come. After a bit, Masterson wondered if Holliday was simply in the habit of checking his back trail and was using his smoke as an excuse to do so, using the ashing of his cigarette as a kind of time-keeping device. He thought it odd that Holliday wouldn’t simply use his watch. Of course, there was no pocket on the bib shirt he was wearing, so perhaps he’d foregone the watch this morning.

“Ever been hunted by a posse, Doc?” Masterson asked without expecting an answer.

“I’ve avoided my share, I guess,” Holliday demurred.

Speaking of posse. “I saw Dave Rudabaugh on the train coming out. Did you invite him to join us, Doc?”

Holliday reined his horse in surprise. “That old horse thief? I thought you’d invited him. Couldn’t imagine why.” He allowed his mount to move forward. “I disapprove of the scoundrel’s existence. Please tell me they located his rottin’ corpse under the train.”

Masterson chuckled. “No. But apparently he stole a horse almost as soon as he hit camp. The Deuce only knows where he got to. Probably back to Texas.”

“The Deuce can keep him. Outta my sight, better yet. Just one more reason I can’t go back to Texas though, dammit.”

“Texas bad for your health, Doc?”

“Hum. Let’s just say that, then.” Holliday urged his horse up a rise and Masterson followed, too occupied with watching the trail for loosened rock to continue the conversation.

Another quality to the thinner air was its heightened ability to carry sound. Both men paused when there was the distant pop of small arms, one shot, from the direction of the Grape Creek camp.

“Was that a .22?” Masterson ventured.

“.410, maybe.”

“Someone hunting small game in camp?”

Holliday shrugged. “Kate has a .410,” he admitted then glanced at Masterson. “If it’s her, she’d be usin’ something bigger to down a man, though. Trust me.” Holliday tendered this information as though it should assure Masterson in some way.

Masterson indicated the rifles on Holliday’s saddle. “You leave a heavier weapon behind for Kate, Doc?”

“Well. Not specifically for her, Bat. But yeah, I left a .38 and a .42 in the tent. And a shotgun.”

Damn. The man traveled with an armory. Masterson filed the information away for future reference. He said, “Why would Kate be discharging a .410 in camp?”

Holliday shrugged. “Maybe she’s plannin’ on cooking grouse tonight.”

“You have a… an interesting wife, Doc. May I ask where you found her?”

“The first time? St Louis. I was twenty. Fresh outta school, too green to even know she was a whore. She ate me up like candy. I thought she hung the moon.” He hesitated. “Don’t tell Wyatt. He already thinks she’s the Antichrist.”

Masterson watched Holliday as he spoke all that. Holliday never so much as glanced at him. He spoke to the air like a man in a confessional aware of the shadowed form of a priest behind the screen.

Holliday urged his grullo forward, leaving Masterson to catch up. Following Holliday’s painfully thin form along the ascent, Masterson vowed to himself to never repeat what Holliday had just admitted. It was the closest Holliday had ever come to speaking to Masterson as a friend, and suddenly Masterson wanted to be worthy of that trust. The realization left Masterson shaking his head in amazement, but there it was.

They didn’t speak again until they reached the nearly level ground above the gorge. They skirred every direction, seeking track, wallows, and bits of broken brush. Masterson wordlessly pointed out the print of a fair-sized elk once and Holliday nodded in appreciation. They moved on, scanning the horizon for smoke of a possible camp, anything that would indicate human activity.

Holliday pointed down the canyon at yet another canyon just west of the one they were working above. It was wider than the Royal, with a gentle curve, and not nearly so deep from their vantage point.

Holliday said, “I suppose there’s a good reason Strong isn’t interested in runnin’ his rails through that canyon.”

Masterson nodded. “I’m told it goes nowhere. And that it goes there for a really long time.”

“This part of Colorado is like God designed a maze for all us rats to chase our tails in.”

“And the other part?”

Holliday shrugged. “Looks like east Texas. But taller, I guess.”

Masterson thought he had a valid point.

Another two hours into their slow survey they had traveled far enough to see a mining road down canyon and down-slope. A team of mules was following the rough grade, struggling to pull a wagonload of steel rails. Masterson and Holliday watched the misery for a few minutes.

“Where does that take us?” Holliday asked finally.

“Spike Buck. But I ain’t going and neither are you.”

“Sometimes a direct frontal assault is just the thing, Bat.”

“Nothing doing, Doc. I’m trying to have a nice, clean war here. Most of the men in these camps are just here trying to make a living. I’ll not have them murdered in their beds.”

“It’s daylight, Bat. The shiftless bastards should be up and gettin’ it done.”

As they watched, one of the mules stumbled and the lead teamster snapped at it with his whip. Its trace-mates, alarmed by the crack of the whip, pulled for all they were worth, dragging the weary animal to its feet and back into line. It resumed its efforts to pull its share of the burden.

“Ya know, I was thinkin’,” Holliday admitted after a minute. “The shale that grade is packed on ta. How do they know it’s not just rotten and ready to fall?”

Masterson considered. “You talking about causing a road collapse? That would slow the Rio down a fair bit. There are armed guards on that section of road– but I suppose a clandestinely and carefully placed stick of dynamite would do it.”

“Hell, a man with a shovel, slightly redirectin’ a stream of melt water would do it, Bat. No need to be so dramatic.”

Masterson pulled his scope and glassed the area. There was indeed such a stream that needed merely a bit of spadework and maybe a small shunt to alter its course. No need to risk a man blasting himself off the side of a mountain in the dark, or of even drawing attention to Santa Fe’s role in the deed at all. Enough cedar dotted the slope to provide cover for the operation.

Masterson consulted his survey map, comparing it against the landscape before him. He’d have someone not adverse to a shovel out there this evening.

Holliday meanwhile had backed his mount to step behind Masterson and on toward the edge of the gorge to their right. Masterson turned his sorrel to follow, still folding his map.

By the time he caught up with Holliday, Doc was at the edge of the gorge, aground, and leaning against an outcropping of more red rock rising about shoulder level to the gambler. Masterson dismounted and joined him for the vista.

A thousand feet down, the Arkansas shimmered in the sun, reflecting the red of the canyon walls on either side. It looked like a river of rubies. Masterson felt dizzy suddenly. “The view from here is… breath-taking, ain’t it, Doc?”

Holliday admitted, “Well, since I have none to spare, you’ll pardon me if I’ll not be lookin’ down again.” He pointed across the gulf of air with a motion of his chin to the ridge opposite. “Just lookie what we found, Bat.”

The overwhelming vision of the straight drop was too much to contemplate and Masterson forced himself to look away. He glanced instead in the direction Holliday had indicated.

The far side of the canyon was easily twenty feet lower than Masterson’s position. Clearly visible on the opposite ridge were five men gathered beside a DeRemer round house. Masterson jerked his field glass and took a moment studying the tableau.

“That’s Ben Thompson in the red plaid. JJ Webb in the slicker. The other three I don’t recognize and I know every man in camp by sight. I may not be able to match their names to their faces, but I know their faces.”

“So Rio men, most likely,” Holliday supplied.

“And the Rio men are armed, Webb and Thompson are not. Makes me wonder how long the Rio intend to hold them before making demands.”

“Maybe there are no demands and they’re just workin’ up their nerve. It’s been known.”

“Christ.” Masterson hated feeling helpless. By the time he and Holliday could work themselves to the opposite ridge, the worst could have already happened. The Rio’s men didn’t even have to shoot the Santa Fe’s pistoleers. They could just shove them over the edge and no one would be the wiser that they had been murdered.

Meanwhile, Holliday had been on the move again. He had pulled one of his rifles from its scabbard and was checking its load, speaking softly to the grullo, Masterson assumed. Or praying, maybe.

“It’d be a hell of a shot, Doc,” Masterson advised. “You can’t imagine your old Springfield can make, what? Seventeen hundred yards or more?”

“Not exactly, Bat. Care ta spot me, anyway?”

“If you insist.” Masterson shooed his horse back from the ridge a few yards. “Where do you want me, Doc?”

“Ta my immediate left, about a yard off those rocks. Just keep an eye on the breeze.”

Masterson complied. The wind was coming steady, mild and parallel to the canyon, with no hint of a gust. The trees across the canyon remained relatively still. The sun was behind them, so there was minimal glare.

Masterson adjusted his stance, seeking maximum stability. He didn’t want to ruin this shot even if he had little real hope that Holliday could actually pull it off. He relayed his observations to Holliday who had returned to the ledge. Holliday laid a decidedly un-Springfield rifle barrel across the shoulder of the rock outcropping and bent to his work.

“Doc? Since when do you pack a Whitworth?”

“Quiet now, Bat. Don’t breathe.”

Masterson obeyed. Holliday adjusted the weapon’s front blade for windage and re-sighted down the barrel of the old muzzleloader. Within an impossibly short few seconds, the Whitworth exploded beside Holliday’s ear. Masterson watched the far ridge as one man crumpled and didn’t move. The other four reacted with amazing slowness.

Holliday hadn’t the weight to resist the Whitworth’s heavy recoil, but he rolled quickly back to his feet and was reloading the rifle, packing powder, wad, shot, and more wad down the bore of the now scalding-hot muzzle. Masterson could smell the leather of Holliday’s gloves scorching. Nimble fingers did the deed with a surety born of extended experience and in less than a minute Holliday had taken advantage of his prey’s surprise and landed a second shot, dropping the man where he stood still searching their side of the ridge.

The third miscreant had disappeared into the underbrush before Holliday could recover and pack the barrel a third time. Holliday lowered the Whitfield’s Enfield site and simply breathed for a moment, still winded from the weapon’s pounding concussion against his chest. Bat took a deep breath himself in sympathy.

Across the chasm, Thompson and Webb remained behind the trees where they had thrown themselves, expecting yet another shot from person or persons unknown.

“Hell, I really wanted ta make it three for three,” Holliday said.

Masterson shook his head. “Leave it to you, Doc, to berate yourself instead of celebrating two damn-near impossible shots. I’d shout an all-clear to Webb and Thompson but I doubt they could hear us from here.”

“Well,” Holliday mused, “they’ll figure it out. Sorry I piddled all over your nice clean war, Bat.”


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