West of the Law


The panels of the saloon’s batwing doors rattled noisily against each other and the windows vibrated in their frames. From somewhere close a screen door slammed, opening and shutting on the whim of the wind.

McBride stepped inside.

For a moment he stood there, tall and terrible, looking around him. Gamble Trask was sitting at his table with Hack Burns and a tall man McBride didn’t recognize, a whiskey bottle and glasses between them. Trask’s puzzled eyes moved from McBride to the dead man on his shoulder and back again. Burns’ face showed the sudden awareness of a hunting cougar and the tall man shifted slightly in his chair, clearing his holstered gun for the draw.

McBride stepped to the table and Trask started to rise. McBride threw the dead cowboy from his shoulder and the body landed flat on its back on the tabletop. The kid had been small, but he was heavy enough to collapse the rickety table, which splintered under him with a crash. As the whiskey bottle and glasses shattered on the floor, Trask, now on his feet, stepped back.

‘‘Are you crazy?’’ he yelled, his eyes blazing.

There was no give in McBride. ‘‘Trask,’’ he said, ‘‘next time you try to kill me, send a man and not a boy.’’


This is respectfully dedicated to the ‘‘American Cowboy.’’ His was the saga sparked by the turmoil that followed the Civil War, and the passing of more than a century has by no means diminished the flame.

True, the old days and the old ways are but treasured memories, and the old trails have grown dim with the ravages of time, but the spirit of the cowboy lives on.

In my travels—to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska,

Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona—I always find something that reminds me of the Old West. While I am walking these plains and mountains for the first time, there is this feeling that a part of me is eternal, that I have known these old trails before. I believe it is the undying spirit of the frontier calling, allowing me, through the mind’s eye, to step back into time. What is the appeal of the Old West of the American frontier?

It has been epitomized by some as the dark and bloody period in American history. Its heroes— Crockett, Bowie, Hickok, Earp—have been reviled and criticized. Yet the Old West lives on, larger than life.

It has become a symbol of freedom, when there was always another mountain to climb and another river to cross; when a dispute between two men was settled not with expensive lawyers, but with fists, knives, or guns. Barbaric? Maybe. But some things never change. When the cowboy rode into the pages of American history, he left behind a legacy that lives within the hearts of us all.

Ralph Compton

Chapter 1

The sky was on fire and death stalked the darkness.

John McBride, until that night a detective sergeant, one of New York City’s finest, pressed his back against the side of a freight car, the Smith & Wesson .38-caliber self-cocker in his right fist up and ready at shoulder level.

Beside him he heard Inspector Thomas Byrnes curse the rain, the gloom and the lightning that scrawled across the sky like the signature of a demented god.

‘‘John, where is the damn . . . ?’’ Byrnes’ final word was lost in a crash of thunder.

‘‘Train?’’ McBride finished it for him, a faint smile tugging at his lips.

‘‘Yeah, the train, damn it. I paid the guard ten dollars just to wave a lamp from the back of the caboose as he pulled out of the yard. Well, I don’t see a caboose, I don’t see a lamp and I sure as hell don’t see a train.’’ The inspector’s anxious gaze searched the rain-lashed darkness around them. ‘‘You see anything?’’


‘‘At least there’s no sign of Sean Donovan’s hoodlums. That’s good.’’

‘‘Yeah,’’ McBride said, his bleak eyes lost in darkness, ‘‘that’s good. But the fact that we can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not out there.’’

The big cop saw only a sea of wet, gleaming rails and the hunched, black silhouettes of motionless boxcars. Here and there rose the looming bulk of water towers, standing on four skinny legs like creatures from a child’s nightmare. Shadows pooled everywhere, mysterious and full of menace, the torrential rain talking among them in a voice that rattled like black phlegm in the chest of an ancient coal miner.

Beyond the train yard, unseen in the darkness, sprawled a warren of warehouses, slaughterhouses and cattle pens, and behind those the teeming, pestilence-ridden tenements of Hell’s Kitchen. The rickety buildings, infested by rats and slyer, more dangerous two-legged vermin, were inhabited by poor Irish immigrants, starving paupers, orphaned children, whores, pickpockets and criminal gangs, the most vicious of them big, laughing Sean Donovan’s Forty-fifth Street Derry Boys.

Donovan, six feet four and 250 pounds, all of it bone and muscle, had come up the hard way. He’d begun his criminal career as an enforcer for Dutch Heinrich’s ferocious Nineteenth Street Gang. On Dutch Henry’s orders he’d used brass knuckles, boots and skull to smash and destroy all those foolish or brave enough to defy the gangster. Donovan had killed eight men with his fists and several more with a gun or knife before he finally forced out the Dutchman and took over his protection, prostitution, gambling and opium rackets.

For all his well-cut suits, his diamond pinkie ring and his cynical, self-serving generosity to the poor, Sean Donovan was a bad man to cross, a born killer with a long memory. It was Detective Sergeant McBride’s misfortune that he’d been forced to kill one of the big Irishman’s sons . . . and that was a thing Donovan would not forgive or ever forget.

McBride stepped to the corner of the freight car and stared into the flame-streaked night. Sizzling like water on a hot plate, lightning flashes lit up the train yard, scorching the darkness with bolts of scarlet and gold. Nothing moved in the searing light that flickered like a gigantic magic lantern before dying into blackness. There was no sound but the crash of thunder and the dragon hiss of the rain.

‘‘See anything, Sergeant?’’ Byrnes asked again, a faint note of hope rising in his voice.

‘‘Nothing.’’ McBride let his gun drop to his side. With a toe he pushed his wet carpetbag farther under the freight car, then turned and stood by the inspector. ‘‘This doesn’t sit well with me,’’ he said. ‘‘I mean to cut and run like this. It’s sticking in my craw like a dry chicken bone.’’

Rain ran in rivulets off the black oilskin capes both men wore, and drummed on their plug hats. Around them the raging night was on fire.

Byrnes spoke slowly, as though he were talking to a child. His eyes tried and failed to meet McBride’s in the gloom. Thunder crashed, lightning flared and the air smelled of ozone and the rubbery tang of wet oilskin.

‘‘John,’’ he said, ‘‘Donovan vows he’ll pay the man who brings him your ears a thousand dollars in gold.’’

‘‘I know that, Inspector,’’ McBride said, a small, stiff anger rising in him. ‘‘Isn’t that the reason we’re here?’’

‘‘So I’m telling you something you already know, but it won’t do you any harm to hear it again.’’ He waved a hand. ‘‘Back there in the Kitchen, there’s no lack of toughs who will cut any man, woman or child in half with a shotgun for fifty dollars. The word is out, John. You’re a brave man and a good officer, but you’re in over your head. For a thousand dollars they’ll come at you in the hundreds. There will be no end to them. And finally they’ll get you, someday, somewhere, with a bullet or a knife in the back.’’

‘‘I could go after Donovan,’’ McBride said. He’d moved even closer to Byrnes and the hard planes of his face seemed cast in bronze. ‘‘If he’s out of the way, there’s no one to pay his blood money.’’

Inspector Byrnes shook his head, a motion McBride heard rather than saw. ‘‘John, you know we can’t touch Donovan, at least for now. He covers his slimy tracks real well. Even if we did arrest him, his battery of high-priced lawyers would get him out within the hour, and later they’d make sure we never got a conviction.’’ Byrnes’ laugh was bitter. ‘‘Add to that the fact that he’s got half of city hall in his pocket, and right now Mr. Donovan is well-nigh untouchable.’’

McBride stepped closer to Byrnes, a gusting wind slapping rain into his face. ‘‘He’s not untouchable, Inspector. I can get to him.’’

It took a few moments for the implication of what McBride had just said to sink into Byrnes’ consciousness. He put his hand on the taller man’s wet shoulder. ‘‘Sergeant McBride, you are an intelligent, brave and resourceful officer, but if you killed Sean Donovan, it would be my unpleasant duty to charge you with murder. That means either the rope or forty years in Sing Sing. Either way, Donovan would have won because you’d be dead or buried alive in the penitentiary.’’ Byrnes made a fist and punched McBride lightly on the chest. ‘‘You think about that now, boyo.’’

A sense of utter defeat weighing heavy on him, McBride turned his face to a black sky cobwebbed with lightning, thunder roaring like gigantic boulders being hurled along a marble hall. He said nothing. He could not find the words.

‘‘John, you will leave for the Western lands just as we planned,’’ Byrnes said, his tone cajoling. ‘‘A man can lose himself out there in the wildernes ...

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