With his momentum carrying him toward the vaqueros, McCutchen focused on the first among them to respond and squeezed the trigger. The cylinder rolled, the hammer fell, gunpowder ignited and a singular hole appeared in his forehead. Again, McCutchen squeezed the trigger. Fire lit the end of his barrel. A second man fell with a sudden hole to the forehead.
Chester continued at full bore. Leaping over the fire he clipped a burning branch that showered sparks on the retreating men. McCutchen slowed to a steady walk, mechanically working both hands as if he held the second .45 in his left. In reality the right had to work twice as fast. He pulled the trigger a third time, and a fourth. Two more men fell, skulls vented to the night. But it wasn’t enough.
A bullet whizzed past McCutchen’s head. The immediate crack, like axe on wood, meant it’d been all too close. He whistled for Chester and bolted toward the adobe buildings, putting the bonfire between him and the remaining vaqueros, including the son of a bitch with the knife.
Only two more rounds came close, as reaching for horn and stirrup, McCutchen snagged Chester at full gallop. But as he shifted his weight into the saddle Chester slumped and dove headfirst into the ground. The sudden change of momentum flung McCutchen sprawling over the horse’s head.
He hit hard with no time for pain. Dirt pelted him in the face as a bullet missed low. To make things worse, he heard el Jefe ordering someone to go for help.
McCutchen scurried back to the fallen horse who rasped up a mixture of blood and foam with every labored breath. “Dammit. I’m sorry, boy.” He took shelter behind the horse and felt the animal’s warm body jerk with fresh bullet wounds. Now he was in for it. No horse, no element of surprise and only two more bullets.
Angry at himself for stupidly losing precious seconds, he reloaded his Colt with rounds from his belt. He tried to think. If one vaquero rode for help only two remained. If he could get them and find a horse…
A slug tore through the meat of his calf, interrupting his thoughts. His body hummed with pain, every nerve fighting to override his ability to reason. But he had to think. Something was wrong. He wasn’t in their line of fire. Like a shotgun blast it came to him.
The glint of fire light on steel flickered in an adobe window. He rolled to his left as another flare revealed a rifle barrel spewing hot lead. The bullet struck Chester mercifully in the head. With no cover and no choice McCutchen pumped his good leg, hobbling toward a narrow opening between adobe homes.
Only a couple of stray shots pursued him, the vaqueros possibly reloading. He braced himself against the cold adobe and tried to think clearly, but he was losing the battle. The peons had turned against him. Stupid Mexicans were all alike—willing to shoot the guy helping them, just because he’s a gringo. Or did they know he was a rinche? How could they know? But who the hell else would charge in here alone?
His line of thought wasn’t helping, but furious, he couldn’t stop. All the piss poor treatment he’d taken from Mexicans over the years. Even the children hissed, “Rinche, pinche, cara de chinche,” calling him a mean Ranger with the face of a bug.
He was only doing his job. And a damn fine job at that, protecting worthless, ungrateful trash. And now Chester. The best damn horse he had ridden, shot down by some snot-nosed peasant. Not even a hardened bandito, but a peon who couldn’t recognize help when he saw it—a peon growing marihuana and spreading it into his Texas! An encroaching darkness absorbed him.
The gravel crunched behind him. Faster than God, he spun and pulled the trigger.
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