John Carrier Steele stepped out onto the dusty boardwalk and immediately put the wall to his back as his green eyes carefully scanned the street; it had long ago become a habit to him, so he did it without thinking now.
Once a man earned a reputation as a gunfighter, there was seldom a moment of peace of mind; danger came suddenly and from unexpected directions. Vigilance now had become his constant companion, his best insurance against lying on a cold slab in some mortician’s backroom. Yet, Steele knew he could not evade that end forever, only forestall the inevitable.
“So, this is Two Guns,” he muttered half under his breath.
He saw a lone figure in the doorway of the Pizen Saloon, though it was too far away to make out any features. So they know, he thought.
Steele rode into town late the night before and checked into the Arizona House, hoping his presence would remain unknown until he’d had a chance to look the place over and decide if he’d take the job.
Three mules stood restlessly in front of the assay office, which was next to the Washington Trust Bank. Steele studied the mules briefly, before turning toward a sign that read “Big Bloke’s,” and promised food. He caught a whiff of fresh baking and headed that way.
As he passed the office of the Two Guns Gazette Steele caught a glimpse of himself in the plate glass window. His hair was still predominately black, though gray at the temples and sideburns, and salted with small patches of gray. He didn’t realize how gray his hair had become, but then again he didn’t spend much time preening in front of a mirror like some rose-water dandy. His thick, neatly trimmed mustache was black, though dotted with flecks of gray; his tanned square-jawed face was lined with experience. His shoulders were still broad, but the once tapered waist had widened a bit over the years. His cold, green eyes had long been his ace in the hole; men disliked staring into those eyes that seemed to suck the courage from the strongest adversaries. Old-timers said Steele had the same unnerving look as Hickok had. Often a hard, steady gaze was enough to calm a would-be bad man down.
Starting to turn, Steele noticed the photographs in the bottom right corner of the window. One held his attention; it was a young blonde woman dressed in Parisian fashion with a strand of pearls around her neck and a green emerald star as a brooch on her lavender dress.
“Morning, friend,” a narrow, sandy-haired man wearing wire-rimmed spectacles said, as he came to the door of the newspaper office, broom in hand. “Another day, another dollar – or, as they say in Two Guns, another day another burying!”
“Heard sentiments like that before,” Steele admitted.
The newspaperman sized up the stranger in a quick, appraising glance. “You look like a newcomer to our fair town.”
“Got in last night.”
The man thrust out a hand, “The name’s Jeff Bloom. I own the Two Gun Gazette. I print it with ink and defend it with lead.”
Passing off Bloom’s remark as hyperbole, Steele shook his hand, saying, “Pleased to meet you, Jeff. Call me Jack. If you don’t mind me saying, this seems like a pretty small place to keep a newspaper in business.”
“Well, it is starting slow,” Bloom acknowledged. “I’ve only done two issues, so far; but both sold out. I also do photography.” He indicated the images in the window. “Portraits for a dollar. Noticed you looking at them. You interested in having your photograph taken? It wouldn’t take long.”
“Maybe another time.” Steele pointed to the blonde woman, “Who is she?”
“That’s why she’s in the window,” Bloom grinned. “Gertie never fails to catch a man’s eye. That’s Gertie Beauregard. Did you know her?”
“No, not that I recall.”
“Well, if you’d met Gertie, you’d remember!”
“She is pretty.”
“Oh, it’s not just that, Jack. Sure, Gertie was a beautiful woman, but she was so much more. She had a beautiful soul. You won’t find anyone in Two Guns who would say an unkind word about her.”
Steele studied the photograph and his thoughts trailed back to a woman he knew, a woman named Clara Beauregard. It just couldn’t be—yet the look was undeniably there. But Gertie? Well, it wasn’t unusual for a person in the west to take on a new name.
Bloom’s voice interrupted Steele’s reverie.
“Huh? What was that?”
“I was saying; I expect Two Guns to grow much larger.”
“That so?”
Bloom nodded toward the northeast. “Canyon Diablo is off that way, about five miles distant. The Atlantic & Pacific Railroad is fixing to build a line across it. This place will really bloom then—pun intended.”
A smile slipped past Steele’s lips. “Even with a railroad, what makes you think Two Guns will grow? It’s out in the middle of nowhere.”
“The Hashknife and the smaller outfits will be able to ship their cows from here. Give us two, maybe three years and we’ll likely be as big as San Francisco!”
“Sounds optimistic, Jeff.”
Bloom grinned. “Only way to be, Jack. Always look for the good in a thing, instead of dwelling on the negative.”
“Yeah,” Steele said. “I’ll try to keep that in mind.”
There wasn’t much good in this situation, Steele knew. Two Guns had a reputation for violence and lawlessness, and maybe it was a town too evil to tame. Could he bring law and order to Two Guns? Well, why not? After all, he was the same man that had tamed Hays City, Dodge, Ellsworth, Alta and El Paso—or was he? Nearly twenty-five years had passed between that day in Hays City, when he first pinned on a badge, and now. Twenty-five hard years, he thought.
“I can do it,” Steele muttered to himself as he neared the restaurant. “One last time.”
Last time?
Now why had he said that? Was it a subconscious acknowledgement that at forty-five he had no business trying to tame a wild town; or maybe just the realization that the times were changing?
Big Bloke’s was nearly empty; a pair of sleepy-eyed cowboys nursed their coffees at a small, square table near the door and several railroad workers were concentrating on their food at a long table along the right wall. A lone cowboy sat at a round table in the rear, to the left of the kitchen door. The cowboy looked up and nodded a greeting to Steele, who crossed the room to the cowboy’s table.
“Bryant, isn’t it?”
“Uh-huh. Cullen Bryant,” the man said in a Texas drawl. He indicated a seat, “Join me?” After Steele took a seat, Bryant continued, “You got yourself quite a memory, Steele.”
“Saw you in Abilene around ’71,” Steele recalled. “And in Tombstone about fourteen years back; right around that Earp-Clanton fracas.”
“Like I said, you got a good memory,” Bryant said, as he pushed his empty plate away. “You’re the talk of Two Guns these days, Steele. You taking the job?”
“Reckon so,” Steele nodded. “What are you doing around these parts, Bryant?”
“My friends call me Cull.”  The cowboy paused as a pretty Navajo woman came to the table with a cup in one hand and a coffeepot in the other. She refilled Bryant’s cup first, then filled one for Steele before disappearing back into the kitchen. “Just drifting. Was working for the Hashknife, but I pulled my freight a few days ago. Got me some pay coming, but I’d play hob trying to collect it from that tightwad, Gunnison.”
“That’s a pretty big outfit.”
“One of the biggest,” Bryant nodded. “Don’t rightly know how they run things down south, but up this end there’s a new foreman—Art Gunnison—and he’s hired a lot of tough boys lately. Most of the older hands were run off or quit. The outfit now is made up of hombres that know guns better’n they do cattle.”
“Heard about them, up Durango way. The talk was that they’re a tough bunch.”
“You ain’t just a-woofing, Steele. You’re going to find out sooner or later. They ride in here every once in a while and shoot-up the town. Them boys ain’t particular what they shoot at neither.”
The waitress came back with a heaping plate of food and set it before Steele.
“Smells good,” Steele commented. “What is it?”
“I call it Herrera Hash,” she replied. “I learned to make it from Arch Herrera, a missionary that used to live around here.”
Steele shoved a forkful of hash into his mouth and chewed contentedly. It was tasty and he decided that he’d be eating at Big Bloke’s often. The food was first-rate—and he couldn’t get the image of that Navajo waitress out of his mind.
After taking a sip of his coffee, Steele looked across the table. “I’ll be looking for a deputy, Cull.”
Bryant shook his head. “Count me out, Steele. You would be asking me to sign my own death warrant!”
“I’ve heard talk before of towns that couldn’t be tamed,” Steele said. “I tamed them. Two Guns can’t be that bad?”
“Worse than anything you seen before, I’d bet. Look, I don’t know how much Mayor Garza offered to pay you, but it ain’t near enough. Trust me,” he said. Bryant started to roll a cigarette before continuing, “The last marshal we had was sworn in at 3 p.m.—and buried at eight. There have been seven marshals in the past three months, Steele. Not one of them lasted a three full weeks.” Bryant stood up and put on his hat. “I don’t know why you took this job, amigo, but if you want some advice, I’d say skedaddle whilst you can.”
Why had he come here? To bring law and order to an out-of-control frontier town; or to enhance—maybe salvage—his own legend? Or was there an unspoken reason, something his mind could not quite accept? Maybe he wanted to cheat Fate, which was abandoning him to a strange, new world, where a gunfighting lawman was a relic from a bygone era. Most gunfighters died at an early age, so Steele knew he was lucky to still be alive and kicking. Surviving in the rowdy boomtowns was no easy feat—and it required more luck than he had a right to expect.
“More coffee?”
Steele gave a start, having been lost in his own thoughts for a moment. He smiled at the waitress.
“Don’t mind if I do, ma’am.”
“Don’t call me ‘ma’am’, it makes me sound so old. My name is Nizhoni.”
“Pleased to meet you, Nizhoni. I’m Jack.”
She indicated his empty plate. “I see you liked the Herrera Hash.”
“Mighty tasty ma’am—uh, Nizhoni. That’s an unusual name; has a ring to it, though.”
“It’s Navajo, it means beautiful.”
“Then it fits perfectly,” Steele replied.
She blushed and changed the subject, “I saw you talking with Cullen. Are you a friend of his?”
“Not really.” Steele took a swallow of his coffee. “We’ve bumped into each other a couple of times. Friends? I wouldn’t say that, just acquaintances.”
Steele stood up, putting his flat-crowned black hat on, he looked slyly at Nizhoni, “I was curious about the name of this place. You can’t be Big Bloke?”
Nizhoni laughed, her face lighting up. “Goodness, no! That’s my little brother, Benito. He’s usually doing the cooking, but when he needs me, I come and lend a hand.”
“Why is he called Big Bloke?”
“Wait’ll you see him, then you won’t have to wonder,” she replied. “Thank you for coming in,” she called over her shoulder as she carried the dirty dishes to the kitchen.
With a smile on his face, he opened the door.


Two Guns Copyright © 2014 by John Christian Hopkins. All Rights Reserved.


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