OUT WEST : NUMBER NINE
Owing to the uneven rock surface, Saul Cotton’s position wasn’t comfortable but it was the best he could get. Sprawled atop a bluff, he was two hundred yards distant from and sixty feet higher than the spot his target would soon occupy. No great problem. It was just as well that the victim would not be looking in his killer’s direction at the critical moment for in that case Cotton would have had difficulty concealing himself. As matters stood, he would manage that by pushing himself backwards for two or three minutes when his man appeared. If he’d been able to shoot from a little further back, he would have had low bushes for cover but there were none at the edge and that was where he needed to be.
This was Cotton’s sixteenth undertaking of its kind and only one had not gone to plan. On that occasion he’d been frustrated by circumstances beyond his control and further developments had resulted in the contract being cancelled. Each success enhanced his reputation and enabled him to increase his fee for the next contract. Being a man who enjoyed his work, he seldom considered taking up a different way of life. He was amoral and did not think about what his victims had done to deserve the executions he carried out. When approached, he agreed terms with the principal concerned, invariably half the fee in advance and the balance on completion. He’d been operating that way for nearly five years and had earned enough to buy his way into a legitimate business, but had no intention of doing so. Like many specialists, he found that his occupation gave him all the gratification he needed.
Though he experienced long gaps between commissions, Cotton was seldom idle. His jobs were always done with a rifle and since there were times when he couldn’t be sure of details ahead of the event, he had to be extraordinarily proficient with his weapon. He made certain of that, rarely allowing a day to go by without a session of practice. An expert at all ranges and angles and in any reasonable atmospheric condition, he had once killed a man from over six hundred yards. One shot did it. But his eleventh outing had given him more satisfaction than any other. He’d been four hundred and fifty yards from the target and obliged to contend with a sharp crosswind. A very difficult assignment and again a single bullet was enough.
On the ground by Cotton’s side was his most treasured possession, a Winchester rifle, a very special piece of workmanship. Only a small number of that kind had been made, some in 1873, others in 1876. The deadly marksman’s pride and joy was one of fewer than seventy produced in the later year. Because of their remarkable accuracy, each of these prized firearms had been dubbed ‘one of one thousand’ and their cost reflected that description. Still, a top tradesman needed the best tools and Cotton had been so glad to lay hands on this outstanding weapon that he had paid the high price without haggling.
Today’s task was among the simpler ones Cotton had faced. He was to dispose of a Mexican fellow named Ortega, who had spent many of his forty-one years involved in a variety of criminal activities, including robbery on a large scale and murder. A vicious character, he had killed four men and arranged the deaths of a dozen other people, including three women, and had ruined the lives of many more, male and female. There was hardly any branch of crime he hadn’t tried at one time or another. The world would be a much better place without him, though that did not interest the man who was preparing to despatch him from this world. All that mattered to the professional executioner was the pay, which was by some margin his highest to date.
Cotton had been informed of Ortega’s habits and had verified them by two days of observation, using his field glasses and taking advantage of a high hill nearly a mile from where he was now. Every morning, after a late breakfast, the Mexican emerged from his front doorway, strolled around his large garden then sat on a bench facing his extensive flower beds, lit a cigar and spent half an hour enjoying nicotine and nature. His back and shoulders would be resting against the thick wooden slats of the bench, but that didn’t trouble Cotton, who had a head shot in mind anyway. He almost always did. Even his six-hundred-yarder had been carried out that way.
At eleven fifteen, Ortega came out of the house and went through his usual routine, pausing a few times to admire flowers and shrubs before taking his seat on the bench and lighting his smoke. Though he could afford the very best, he had a predilection for the third-rate products he received gratis from their maker, whose business he had supported with a generous donation long ago. He had become accustomed to the brand and never contemplated a change.
Those closest to Ortega were often struck by the fact that for a man given to extreme behaviour in business matters, especially when dealing with rivals, he was restrained and conservative in his personal habits. He limited the cigars to three a day and his alcohol intake to two glasses of cheap wine with his main meal. He rarely drank hard liquor and then only in very small amounts and he did not take drugs. His view was that a man with a complex network of enterprises to run should have a clear head at all times. Like many men of his kind, he was equipped with a high regard for his own safety. That was hardly surprising, as there were several people who would have been happy to learn of something drastic befalling him.
With his target settled down, Cotton didn’t intend to waste time. Weather conditions were perfect for his purpose. It was dry and there was no problem with either sunlight or wind, so visibility was excellent. As if trying to make things easier for the killer, Ortega had taken off his hat. It was show time. The murderer picked up his rifle, gave a final wiggle to get himself into the perfect posture, then . . . crack!
On hearing the shot, Ortega smiled, stood and began to amble back to the house. On the bluff, his bodyguard, Luis Ramirez, came forward to take a look at the hole his forty-five bullet had made in the back of Cotton’s head. He didn’t bother to examine the exit wound. Having metaphorically lived by the sword, the multiple murderer had died by it.
Ortega was no fool. He was well aware that the bluff presented a good vantage point for anyone wanting to get rid of him. It was part of his protector’s work to attend to that point and Ramirez did so assiduously. He’d known about the killer’s presence in the area all along and had been keeping an eye on him. Shortly after Cotton had moved into place at eleven o’clock, Ortega’s man had crept stocking-footed to within five yards of him, then held aloft a bright red bandana, the signal to his boss that all was in hand. Ortega’s acknowledgement had been the removal of his hat.
In the twenty minutes since he’d moved into place, Cotton hadn’t looked to his rear. Had he done so, he would have met his end at that instant. As it was, Ramirez had amused himself by waiting until the last moment before disposing of Cotton, acting only when the would-be killer began to snug the rifle to his right shoulder. Setting the valuable Winchester aside – it would make a fitting trophy for his boss – Ramirez reached out a muscular right arm, yanked up the corpse by its left leg, heaved it over the cliff’s edge and watched its two-second fall. ‘Un buen trozo de carroña,’ he muttered. He was right. A nice piece of carrion was a fair description of the deceased assassin.
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