by D. J. Herda
Wade Hawkins cradled the reigns of his chestnut gelding in one hand as he approached the abandoned shack on foot. Slowly, cautiously, he inched forward, as if on the trail of a wounded animal that might turn and spring on him at any moment.
This was the shack he’d been hunting for. The trail he’d followed for the past two days had been dry and windblown, but it led him here. To the cabin. To the very hooves of the horse grazing on the brown stubble some 10 feet from the building. Not even the fading day of light or the cool arroyo breeze could disguise the flickering glow squirming from beneath the door or mask the unmistakably pungent scent of kerosene on the air. The man he wanted was inside, no doubt about it.
Hawk tied off the gelding and slipped across the decaying wooden porch, a single soft squeak giving up the only notice of his presence. He clasped the wooden latch, paused a second, and flung the door open suddenly. An old man, bathed in lamplight, looked up at him. The man was wearing washboard-gray long johns and squatting on a high-backed wooden chair, digging beneath a thick, curled toenail with a knife.
Hawk’s eyes instinctively swept the room, a habit they had acquired during years spent scouting for the U.S. Army, where overlooking a single strand of hair could mark the difference between life and death.
He spied a .32-caliber carbine lying on the hearth across from the old man. His eyes detected a sliver of movement off to one side, his ears picking up the nearly imperceptible change in the man’s breathing. Hawk’s skin sensed a small rise in the man’s body heat as the old man, too, looked across the room toward the gun.
Suddenly Hawk leaped across the threshold, flinging himself toward the man, who had already dropped to his knees, a skittering scorpion racing for the weapon. But Hawk arrived first, the unyielding heel of his boot coming down hard on the gun’s muzzle, pinning it against the floor as the man’s hands tugged furtively at the stock.
Hawk slipped an Army-issue Colt .45 with glimmering custom grips out of a battle-scarred sheathe and touched the tip of the muzzle to the old man’s ear.
“Where is she?” he asked.
The man released the gunstock and settled back on his haunches like a prairie dog. “Well, now,” he said, an awkward grin creasing his thick, stubbled jaw.
“You’re a quick one, ain’t ya?” He cautiously pushed the pistol barrel to one side, and Hawk just as cautiously brought it back again. “Don’t reckon I seen you around this neck o’ the woods before. Just passin’ through?”
Hawk grabbed the few strands of oily gray hair still clinging to the man’s head and yanked back on them.
“Oww! Goddam it, that hurts,” the old man cried. “Let up, will you?”
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