Released in 2010
Texas Ranger Sean Kennedy awoke just before sunup, while the other members of his Ranger Company were still snoring in their bunks. It was his morning to feed the horses and start the breakfast fire.
Sean swung his legs over the edge of his mattress and sat up. He pulled on his jeans, boots, and then ran a hand through the thatch of unruly dark hair covering his head. He stood, yawned and stretched, rubbed his beard-stubbled jaw and scratched his belly. Sean lifted his shirt from the peg behind his bunk and shrugged into it, tied a blue bandanna around his neck, then jammed his battered gray Stetson on his head. Finally, he buckled his gun belt around his waist and headed outside.
Sean stepped from the bunkhouse on the abandoned ranch just northwest of Laredo, which his company had been using as a headquarters for the past six weeks.
His blocky blue roan gelding, Ghost, nickered a greeting when the Ranger headed for the corral. The mount, which had been named not only for his coloring but also for his uncanny ability to move almost silently through the brush, was a big horse, which was necessary to support his rider's size. Kennedy was a large man, just about six feet tall, lantern-jawed, barrel-chested, and thickly built. His bulk belied his quickness, for he could outdraw most men, and had catlike agility in a fistfight.
"Mornin', boy," Sean called to his mount. The horse whinnied again, more urgently this time. He and the other horses in the corral had their heads lifted and ears pricked sharply forward, gazing at something in the distance.
"What's botherin' you, Ghost?" Sean asked. Sean turned to follow the horse's gaze, his dark eyes narrowing against the glare of the rising sun, now gilding the eastern sky blazing yellow and orange. He could barely discern an approaching object off to the east.
Sean squinted, trying to ascertain exactly what he was watching. He finally realized it was an approaching horse.
"Somethin's wrong, though," he muttered. "That horse doesn't appear to be movin' right. I don't see a rider, either."
The horse broke into a trot as it drew nearer the ranch.
"That's Thad Dutton's horse!" Sean exclaimed, recognizing the blaze-faced chestnut. When he started toward the animal, it stopped, whickered nervously.
"Thad!" Sean shouted.
Ranger Thad Dutton, his left foot caught in the stirrup, hung upside down from his saddle. His six-gun was gripped tightly in his hand, which dragged the ground; his eyes were wide open in the unseeing stare of death. Dried blood stained his shirtfront and covered his face. It coated Thad's Stetson, still held tightly on his head by its chinstrap.
"Lieutenant Blawcyzk!" Sean called. "Sergeant Huggins! Get out here, quick!"
He stepped carefully toward the animal. "Easy, Toby, easy," Sean attempted to sooth the nervous horse. He lunged, and grabbed the gelding's reins before it could trot off.
Lieutenant Jim Blawcyzk emerged from the bunkhouse, closely followed by Sergeant Jim Huggins and several other members of the company.
"What is it, Sean?" Blawcyzk called.
"It's Thad Dutton. His horse just brought him back. Thad's dead."
"What?" Blawcyzk exclaimed.
"Appears like he was gut-shot," Sean answered. "And maybe took a bullet in his head. Can't tell for certain until we get him off his bronc."
"Johnston, Mallory, help Kennedy get Dutton off Toby," Blawcyzk ordered two of the Rangers assembled around their dead comrade.
"Right away, Lieutenant."
While Sean held Dutton's horse steady, the two men attempted to remove him from the saddle.
"Thad's pretty stiff, Lieutenant," Rick Johnston noted. "We're gonna have trouble gettin' him off this horse."
"Seems he's been dead for some time," Levi Mallory added. Mallory was a young Ranger, in his early twenties. In contrast to the blocky built, darkly-featured Kennedy, he had a slim build, hazel eyes, and light brown hair. Mallory's rugged good looks were accentuated by his wind and sun darkened skin.
"We'll let Sergeant Huggins figure out when he was killed. That's his area of expertise. You just get Thad down," Blawcyzk replied.
After struggling to bend the muscles and joints of Dutton's rigor mortis stiffened limbs, the two men were finally able to free him from the saddle and lay him on the ground.
"Jim…" Blawcyzk said to Huggins.
"Yep," the veteran sergeant answered. He glanced at Sean.
"Kennedy, get someone to handle that horse. Now's your chance to show you've learned some of what I've been teachin' you."
"Sure, Sergeant," Sean agreed. After he handed Toby's reins to Mallory, he and Huggins knelt beside Dutton's body. By now the entire company of Rangers had gathered around them.
"What's the first thing you notice?" Huggins asked.
Kennedy swallowed hard to help get his emotions in check. He and Dutton had ridden together for two years. He resolutely put aside his distress over the loss of his friend and fellow Ranger, to concentrate on the task at hand.
"Thad was shot with his gun in his hand. His grip tightened on it when the bullet hit him. Cadaveric spasm happens immediately."
Sean lifted Dutton's arm to sniff the gun barrel.
"This gun's been fired, too. Thad got off at least one shot."
"That's correct. What else?"
"I was right sayin' he was shot through the head. I believe Thad took the bullet in his belly first. Despite the slug in his guts he was still able to shoot back at whoever killed him, but then they shot him in his head and finished him off."
"You're doing fine," Huggins assured him. "Go on."
"I'd guess Thad was killed sometime less than twenty-four hours ago. His body hasn't begun to decompose all that much. Rigor mortis is still present, which means he's been dead less'n thirty-six hours or so. Judging by the condition of his horse, which isn't all that gaunt, I came up with a twenty-four hour guess."
"That's reasonable," Huggins agreed. "Anything else?"
"That's about it," Sean answered.
"What about the livor mortis?"
"We didn't talk all that much about that, Sergeant. Maybe you'd better explain."
"All right," Huggins agreed. He opened Dutton's shirt and removed his hat. He then pointed out several purplish-red areas on Dutton's body.
"See these discolored spots? That's livor mortis. Gravity causes the blood to pool once the heart stops pumping. Since Thad was hung up in his saddle, most of the blood settled in his upper chest, neck and shoulders. Look here."
Huggins indicated the large splotch of dried blood running from the bullet hole in Dutton's lower abdomen, over his stomach and chest, and the dried blood matting down his dark hair.
"This much blood on the outside of the body indicates Thad was alive for a while after he was shot. His heart would have had to keep working for this much blood to flow from the wounds. Sean, you were right, up to a point. Thad was shot in the gut first, then the head, but he didn't die right off. I'd say his heart didn't give out for ten or fifteen minutes after he took the second slug. Not that he ever had a chance with two bullets in vital spots. His heart just didn't know he was already dead."
Huggins pulled his Bowie from the sheath on his belt and used the heavy bladed knife to slice open Dutton's abdomen for several inches, from the navel toward the breastbone.
Dennis Knapp, one of the new recruits, turned away, retching violently.
"Guess he's never seen anyone dig for a slug," Huggins offhandedly remarked. He shoved the knife's blade deeper into the dead Ranger's belly, searching for the bullet.
"Got it," Huggins grunted in satisfaction when the blade hit a solid object. He twisted the Bowie to deftly remove the chunk of lead.
"Appears to be a .45 slug by lookin' at it. Once I weigh it I'll know for certain," Huggins noted. "So I'd say Dutton was most likely killed with a pistol, not a rifle. The fact he apparently shot back before he died indicates that, too. He wasn't shot from long range."
Huggins wiped the blade of his knife on Dutton's jeans before shoving it back in its sheath.
"What about the time of death? Was Sean right about that?" Blawcyzk asked.
"Close as anyone can come," Huggins shrugged.
"So we can figure out about how far off Thad was killed, backtrack, and hope we come up with something," Blawcyzk stated.
"It'll be a pretty wide area, but sure, we can narrow it down some," Huggins agreed.
"Fine. Go through Dutton's clothes and see if there might be any clue as to where he was or who might have killed him. I'll check his saddlebags and gear. Once that's done we can get Thad buried and start searching for that lowdown skunk," Blawcyzk ordered.
"It'll be a job gettin' his limbs straight," Mallory observed.
"They'll bend. Just keep workin' at it," Huggins said.
"Wait a minute! I just noticed somethin' else," Sean exclaimed.
"What?" Blawcyzk asked.
"Thad's belt's missin'. You know, the one he had custom made in San Antonio, with the fancy buckle and all."
"That's right," Johnston agreed. "Thad had a Ranger badge engraved on the buckle and his initials on the keepers. He was right proud of that belt. He wouldn't take it off for anything."
"Except a good-lookin' señorita , " Sean said.
"Well, whoever shot Thad didn't take his belt, that's for certain," Huggins observed. "His horse took off with him soon as he was plugged. Thad's killer didn't have the chance to remove that belt."
"Whoever does have Thad's belt might just lead us to his killer," Sean replied.
"We are goin' after him, ain't we, Lieutenant?"
"We'll settle that once we lay Thad to rest," Blawcyzk answered.