2

The word was still ringing in his ear as a gun bellowed flame and a bullet splintered the doorjamb to his right. Steele took a quick step to the left, drawing out of reflex as he did so.
The man stood in the center of Hell Street, holding a smoking pistol. He was swinging it around for another shot. “Damn you, Steele! You ain’t so much!”
Steele’s forty-four bucked in his hand and he saw a red blossom spreading across the gunman’s chest. The man stood on his tiptoes before pitching forward into the dust.
“Anybody know who he is?”
One of the railroad workers shook his head, “Don’t know his name, but he used to hang around the Pizen a lot.”
“Too late for introductions, but his name was Pike, Lorenzo Pike,” said a tall, thin man with a baritone voice. He was dressed in black, with a stovepipe hat to match. “Saw him standing in the middle of the street, just waiting. So, I figured someone or other would need my services.” He thrust a hand toward Steele. “The name’s Hezekiah Carradine. I’m the mortician around here. And, if I may be so presumptuous, I’d say that you, sir, must be John Carrier Steele?”
“That I am, friend,” Steele said, as he holstered his gun. He remembered seeing someone staring at him earlier from the doorway of the Pizen and figured this must have been the man.
“Knowing of your, uh, credentials, sir, I expect business to pick up considerably,” Carradine said.
“Hopefully, I’ll send you customers, instead of being one.”
Turning, Steele walked up Hell Street, nearly bumping into Jeff Bloom, who came hurrying out of the Gazette office with a notepad and pencil in hand.
“What was that shooting, Jack? Did you happen to see it?”
Steele shrugged, “Some fella named Pike. Carradine is with him now.”
“Ol’ Hezekiah, he’s there before the echo of a gunshot fades away.” Turning toward the gathering crowd, Bloom added, over his shoulder, “And I thought this was going to be a slow week!”
Steele continued northward, crossing the wide street—mostly smooth, but liberally sprinkled with small to fist-sized rocks—and headed toward a two-story, white house with a small garden to the right. Opening the gate, he walked to the door, a sign nailed beside it declared it to be the office of Judge Lyndon Akeley, and knocked loudly. A smiling, blond man of about thirty years opened the door.
“Ah, Mr. Steele,” the man said, holding out his hand. “I’m Joey Garza, mayor of Two Guns.” The mayor indicated a straight-backed, gray-haired man standing with a glass of bourbon in his left hand, “This is Judge Lyn Akeley.”
“A pleasure.” The judge accepted Steele’s offered hand and then, with a sly grin, noted, “I take it you’ve had a warm welcome already?”
Steele took an immediate liking to Akeley, “Too warm, Judge. But probably not as warm as it will be when Pike gets where he’s headed.”
“Pike, eh?” Garza glanced at the judge. “Do you think Gratton sent him, Lyn?”
Akeley shook his head. “I don’t think so, Joey. Pike liked to think of himself as a big man, I think he was the kind who would decide to prove it.”
“Can I get you a drink, Mr. Steele?”
“Call me Jack. Thanks for the offer, Mayor, but I’ll pass for now,” Steele said, “Who is this Gratton feller?”
“Seth Gratton, he owns several of the businesses in the south end; the Pizen, Bucket O’ Blood, Lucky Lady and a couple of the cheaper whorehouses,” Garza explained. “He’s about to open a first-class place, the Golden Nugget. He seems to be making money hand over fist.”
“A most unsavory character,” the judge added dourly. “But smart, young man; he’s very slick, indeed. One can suspect him of any number of unscrupulous deeds, but you can never pin anything on him.”
“He’ll smile to your face, Steele, but watch your back. He’s got some real sidewinders working for him; Ace Dixon, Les Compston and Cole Farnum, to name a few.”
“Heard of Farnum,” Steele said. “Killed a fellow in Fort Sumner a couple of years ago, didn’t he?”
“And another in Silver City last year,” Garza said. “The last one we know of was a drifter around Prescott.”
“I trust that you have given careful consideration to this position, Jack? Two Guns isn’t as famous as Tombstone or Dodge City, but don’t be fooled,” Akeley said. Setting his empty glass on the desk behind him, he continued, “It’s as wild as any of them were. We have scarcely gone a week without a shooting, and knifings about every night. We don’t even count fistfights anymore.”
“If you want to back out, no one will blame you,” Garza added. “This might be the toughest job you ever tackled.”
“I always figured once you get on a bucking bronc, your best bet is to hold on tight and try to ride it out.”
The front door slammed opened and a sixtyish-year-old man, with a slight limp, came through; he wore a newly pressed gray suit, a brown derby and carried a hickory walking stick in his left hand.
“Steele, let me introduce Mitch Hall,” Garza said. “Mitch is a member of our town council and he owns the Washington Trust Bank.”
“Looks like I arrived here just in time,” a red-faced Hall huffed. Ignoring Steele’s hand, he continued, “I demand this matter be reconsidered, Mayor. This man—” Hall pointed a bony finger at Steele—“Has been in town less than a day and has already killed a man!”
“It was Pike,” Garza said.
“And his interest was piqued,” Steele added.
“I don’t care who it was, that’s not the point. We all want to put an end to the rampant violence in Two Guns, but is this the way to do it, by hiring a notorious mankiller?” Hall argued. Striking the butt of his cane on the floor for emphasis, Hall continued, “Gentlemen, I have only recently been made aware that this man is known in some quarters as The Widowmaker! Do you deny that, Mister Steele?”
“I have heard that,” Steele admitted.
“Is that your goal here, to create a town full of widows?”
“Got me a simple goal, Mr. Hall,” Steele replied shortly. “To last longer than your last marshal!”
With his cheeks reddening, Hall turned to the mayor. “Will you call a meeting to reconsider this matter, Joe?”
“No, Mitch. We already voted to offer the job to Steele, and he has accepted.”
“Very well then, Mayor. But you mark my words, you will regret this decision!” Hall stormed from the house, slamming the door behind him.
“Friendly feller,” Steele remarked.
“He’s alright, Jack. He just gets his back up some times, and he’s full of righteous indignation.”
“I figured he was full of something.”

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