Two Guns

John Carrier Steele stepped out onto to dusty boardwalk and immediately put the wall to his back as his cool, 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 for 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 cold dank 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 half hanging over the batwing doorway of the Pizen Saloon, though it was too far away to make out any features. So they know, he thought.

Steele had arrived 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. Oldtimers 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 funeral.”

“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. Best newspaper in town. And the only one.”

“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 agreed. “I’ve only done two issues; but both sold out. I also do photography.” He indicated the images in the window behind him. “Portraits for a dollar. Noticed you looking at them. You interested? Wouldn’t take long.”

“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 kow her?”

“No, she seems familiar though.”

“Well, if you’d met Gertie, you’d remember her for the rest of your borned days!”

“She’s a fetching woman.”

“Oh, it’s not just that, Jack. Sure, Gertie was a looker, but she was so much more. She had a beautiful soul. You won’t find anyone in Two Guns to 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. Why some changed names more often than they changed longjohns!

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 thataway, about five miles. 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. By looking ahead you can see where you’re going.”

“By looking back you can see if anything’s gaining on you.”

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, Pie Town, Bodie and El Paso—or was he? More than twenty-five years had passed since that day in Hays City, when he first pinned on a badge. 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 tablealong 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 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, 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. Came this far.” Steele nodded as the waitress brought him coffee. “What are you doing around these parts, Bryant?”

“My friends call me Cull.” The cowboy paused as a pretty Navajo woman refilled his cup before disappearing back into the kitchen. “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. Talk was they’re a rougher than a cob.”

“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 don’t know what 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.”

“That a fact?”

“Been seven starpackers in the past three months, Steele. Not one of them lasted 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 like 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 chanedthe 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.

“Steele!”

 

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 day!”

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 frame 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. He 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?”

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. “You think Gratton sent him?”

Akeley shook his head. “I don’t think so, Joey. Pike considered himself a big man, I think he was the type 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 at the end of the street, 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. He’s hell-on-wheels.”

“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 town you ever tackled.”

“I always figured once you get on a bucking bronc, your best bet is to hold on tight and 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.”

 

======

 

Sitting at his usual table in the Providence Saloon, dapper Bet Thayer was in the middle of a game of solitaire when the first shot rang out, instantly followed by a second. He paused, taking a gold timepiece from his vest pocket and glancing at it, while listening to see if there would be any other shooting. Satisfied that it was over, Thayer nonchalantly resumed his game.

“Sounds like you lost your wager, Bet.”

Two days before Steele had arrived in town Thayer had given in to temptation and gone into the Pizen to place a bet on Steele lasting the week. The bartender at the Providence, Luther Grimes, had scoffed at that, telling the gambler that he’d made a fool’s bet.

“Someone made a try,” Bet acknowledged. “But I think I heard two different calibers, Lute. The second one was a .44 caliber, I believe. Steele always did favor a Colt Peacemaker.”

“I were working a claim up in the Dakotas,” a grizzled oldtimer at the bar commented. “We heard tell Steele had one of Hickok’s .36 Navies.”

“Heard that, too,” Grimes added from behind the bar. “If I had one of Wild Bill’s guns, I’d use it just for luck!”

“Those 1851 Navies were ancient even in Bill’s time,” Bet said. “They’d belong in a museum, right beside the dinosaurs and the pyramids.”

“Don’t know nothing about no dinnysaws, Bet,” Grimes replied. “But if you put a saddle on one I wager that Steele could ride it. From the stories about him, I’d say he’s all man-jack.”

“He is that, Lute,” Bet agreed as he began gathering up the cards. “If he is still residing among the living, that is.”

“He is.” Cullen Bryant had come in the door just as Bet was speaking. “Steele nailed Pike dead center—and the kid already had a gun in his hand!”

“That took some shooting!” Grimes whistled. “Lorenzo Pike was pretty good.”

Bet snorted. “Pike was not good enough to be a pimple on a gunfighter’s arse.”

“He warn’t good enough today, for sure,” Bryant agreed. He walked to the bar. “Pike waited out in the street and as soon as Steele walked out the door, he made his play.”

“Steele better watch his back, then,” Grimes said, setting a beer on the bar before Bryant. “Ace Dixon was Pike’s saddle partner. They worked together down on the Brazos.”

“Didn’t know that,” Bryant said. “I wouldn’t want to tangle with Ace.”

Grimes began stacking up glasses behind the bar, he half-turned his head toward the gambler. “What do you think about Ace, Bet?”

“An ace is usually the card to play,” Bet replied. “But this time he’ll have sixes to beat.”

Wiping beer foam from his mustache, Bryant nodded. “Steele did make short work of Pike.”

“Pike was a tinhorn,” Bet said, as he stood up. “My sister could’ve taken him six ways to Sunday.”

Bryant chuckled. “You can get away with saying a thing like that, Bet. I hear you’re mighty handy with the shooting irons yourself.”

Ich bin das ich bin.”

“Heard palaver like that in Texas, ‘round Fredricksburg,” Bryant said. “What it mean, Bet?”

“It’s German,” Bet said. As he stood up and slipped his coat on, he explained, “It means ‘I am that I am’.”

“You going somewhere, Bet?” Grimes asked. “The boss will be in soon.”

“I believe I will get some fresh air before the evening’s festivities get under way, Lute,” Bet said as he finished off his drink. “I’m curious to see how the boys at the Pizen are taking this.”

“Mind if I tag along?” Bryant asked, pushing away from the bar. “I think I need to get some dinero down before the odds change.”

“Come on along, Cull,” Bet smiled. “There probably won’t be another shooting for at least an hour!”

The Pizen was doing brisk business, despite it being early afternoon. Several cowboys were bellied up to the bar, four of the eight tables were occupied and three men were trying their luck at faro.

Cole Farnum was at a table with Ace Dixon, Jed Wright and a drifting cowboy. Cole glanced up when Thayer and Bryant entered the saloon.

“Come to change your bet?” Farnum asked sarcastically.

“I am quite content with my wager,” Bet Thayer grinned. “I heard about that commotion earlier. It would appear as if Mr. Steele has lost nothing to Father Time.”

“He got lucky,” Ace Dixon snapped. “Nobody’s lucky forever.”

“Perhaps, Dixon,” Bet acknowledged. “Though, the way I heard it, Lorenzo Pike was waiting for Steele—gun in hand—and he still came off second best.”

Farnum leaned back in his chair and began rolling a smoke. “Pike was too anxious; he missed his first shot.”

“That is why Bat Masterson always said a man needed ‘deliberate haste’ when in a gunfight,” Bet said. “If you miss your first shot, it usually ends up being your last.”

Using his thumb to strike a wooden match, Farnum lit his cigarette. Looking over the flame, he said, “I seem to recall you and Steele being friendly back in Tombstone.” Farnum blew the match out. “You ain’t planning to back his play, are you, Thayer?”

“I seem to attract enough trouble without seeking more.” The gambler replied slyly, “Also, I recall that unfortunate occurrence in Pie Town.”

“See that you keep it in mind, Bet,” Farnum suggested. “I’d hate to have any misunderstanding arise between us.”

“As would I, Cole.”

Thayer and Bryant moved to the bar and ordered a couple of beers.

Ace Dixon watched them before turning his eyes to Farnum. “You make it sound like he’s good with a gun.”

“He is, Ace.”

Dixon took a swallow of beer, keeping his eyes on Thayer. “He don’t stack up to much.”

Farnum chuckled. “Now, where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah, that was the last thing Pike said when he left here. Don’t try him, Ace. Bet Thayer is greased lightning—and a dead shot.”

Ace snorted, “Hell, Cole, he’s just a gambler.”

“So was Doc Holliday.”

“He’s got his back to me,” Dixon said in a low voice. “I could plug him right now.”

“I doubt it, Ace.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“Two reasons, Ace. One, Bet’s watching you in the mirror behind the bar.”

Dixon glanced over and realized Farnum was right. He was a little green around the gills when he spoke, “What’s the second reason, Cole?”

“I’d kill you if you tried to backshoot someone in my presence,” Farnum said. “One thing I can’t abide, Ace, is a coward.”

Dixon’s jaw dropped and he was shaking, he dared not make a retort.

Cole Farnum got up from the table and went down the narrow hallway to the left of the bar; one side was used as a storeroom and the other was Seth Gratton’s office.

Gratton was from New York City, where he had been mixed up with the Dead Rabbits street gang. He had started as a numbers runner at ten, became a strikebreaker when he was fifteen and by twenty-one controlled his own ward on the waterfront. He was big for his age and most thought him older than he was. He had made it higher and faster than most who came before him. He used intimidation, force and fear to get what he wanted. Gratton wasn’t one to just sit back and order murder and beatings done, he happily participated.

If he had one endearing quality it was his love for his mother. She took in washing to help the family survive after her husband ran off with another woman, leaving them destitute. A washerwoman didn’t earn much, so Edith Gratton often had “boarders” for overnight stays. One of the boarders was a man named O’Bannion, who introduced young Seth Gratton to the shady world of the street gangs. Seth ran numbers for the Dead Rabbits and began bringing home a few coins every week. He supplemented his income with burglaries and muggings. If his mother knew where his income was coming from, she never let on. Often, her son’s contribution to the family meant the difference between eating stale bread and going hungry.

Seth had a younger brother, but he didn’t really display any emotion toward his sibling. Niles Gratton was five years younger than his brother, and always seemed to be sickly. Secretly, Seth often wished his brother died, leaving one less mouth to feed.

Ma Gratton worked hard, but malnourishment, lack of medical care and her own frailty did her in. Seth was fourteen then. His criminal activity earned enough for the rent, but few luxuries. He taught his brother the art of breaking and entering and they worked as a team for a couple of years, until Niles was caught and sent to a prison work farm.

After that there was no one that loved Seth Gratton, and nobody he loved. One night, after leaving a tavern, Seth was approaching by a stumbling drunk looking for a handout. It was his father!

Pulling the old man into an alley, Seth hissed, “This is for Ma.” He beat his father to death with his bare hands.

He was like an animal, interested only in his own immediate gratification; it wasn’t long before he decided he should be running Tammany Hall. But, in his arrogance, he had also become careless. Gratton made a play for a woman that belonged to high-ranking Tammany captain, and his brazen attempt earned him a severe beating from thugs who jumped him one night as he took a shortcut through an alley in his own ward.

In his rage, Gratton went bezerk; he knew the beating was intended as a warning, but he wouldn’t let it go. He paid the Tammany official’s lady friend an unexpected visit and administered a savage beating to her. With her eyes blackened, her nose broken and her lips swollen and bleeding, she admitted that she had set him up. He slit her throat and left her lying in a pool of her own blood.

But he knew his time in New York was up. A few nights later, with a gang of toughs hot on his heels, he hopped aboard a west-bound train.

“What is it, Cole?”

“I had a talk with Thayer, that gambler over at the Providence, and he’ll stay out of it.”

“Interesting,” Gratton nodded. “He’ll stay out of what exactly?”

Farnum pushed his hat back on his head. “Any trouble we have with Steele. He won’t back Steele’s play.”

“I see.” Gratton said. Rubbing his chin thoughtfully, he looked up. “What made you think Thayer might get involved?”

“Him and Steele were close a few years back. The story is that Steele pulled Thayer out of some kind of jam in Tombstone.”

“And you warned him off?”

“Sure thing,” Farnum said, clearly proud of himself. “I read him from the book and he looked plumb scared.”

“Good work, Cole.” Gratton fished a twenty dollar gold piece from his vest pocket and flipped it to the gunman. “Have yourself a good time, Cole.”

“Thanks,” Farnum grinned. “I’ll let the wolf howl tonight.”

“Damn you,” Gratton thought as the office door closed behind Farnum. “You don’t have the sense God gave a jaybird!”

Though he had never spoken to Bet Thayer, Gratton had seen him on the street and the gambler didn’t size up like a man that would scare easy. In fact, warning him off was likely to have the opposite effect. And Gratton knew about being warned off. Thayer would react the same way he had, only the gambler would use a gun.

The solution was obvious to Seth Gratton; Thayer had to be eliminated before he got a chance to throw in with the new marshal. But how? Bet Thayer was said to be very fast with a gun. He had Farnum, but Gratton wanted him close by in case he had to handle Steele quickly. Pike had been good with a gun, but not as good as he thought.

Then Gratton thought of Ace Dixon.

Gratton took a walk into the bar; the place was packed, as usual. Catching the bartender’s eye, Gratton motioned him over the end of the bar.

“Ace around, Skinny?”

“He went out, probably getting himself a woman,” Skinny Munroe suggested. “There’s that new gal over to Miss Clara’s place.”

Gratton was only half listening. His eyes narrowed and, following Gratton’s gaze, Skinny saw the new marshal crossing the room toward them.

Steele halted a few paces away from Gratton while keeping the bartender in view. “I understand Pike worked for you?”

“He did sporadic errands, Marshal. I wouldn’t say he worked for me though.”

“Was that one of his errands today?”

“I had nothing to do with that, Steele. I don’t pay for assassinations—”

Steele took a step back and turned to face the bartender. “That’s far enough, fat man! Bring your hands up where I can see them—and they better be empty!”

“Don’t be a fool, Skinny,” Gratton commanded. “Get over here where the marshal can keep an eye on you.”

Reluctantly, Skinny moved away from the bar.

“If I find out you sent Pike after me, I’ll be back, Gratton.”

 

 

4

Thumbs tucked behind his gunbelt, John Carrier Steele stood in the doorway, dimly aware of the laughter and music behind him, the chatter of saloon patrons and the clinking of glasses. Just outside it was dark, as black as any time he could recall, maybe the blackest night in history. Thunder rumbled violently and Steele could feel the buildings shake and hear loose shutters slamming in the wind, as torrents of rain slammed across the sky.

And in a savage flash of lightning, he saw the shadow of a man standing on the boardwalk opposite. With the lightning gone, Steele could vaguely tell the man was still there, he saw the merest hint of silver from his belt buckle. He wanted to stay inside the saloon where it was happy and filled with joyous, happy people. Outside was torment and death.

He decided he would not step out onto the sidewalk; and even as he told himself that, he felt his legs moving. His mind screamed “no,” but his body ignored it. He stepped outside and the rain lashed him like a million tiny razors, drawing flecks of blood across his face with each plodding step.

He wanted to turn around and run back inside where it was safe; but he couldn’t. If he turned back now they would all laugh at him and heap scorn upon his proud head. They’d call him yellow, a coward. He’d rather die a thousand deaths than live one day as a coward.

He couldn’t turn around. Maybe, if he could start over, John Carrier Steele could walk away, but The Widowmaker never could. To appear weak just once would spell his doom; every would-be badman in the west would come crawling around, all wanting to be “the man who killed The Widowmaker!”

The unseen gunman across the street took a step closer. Steele could see his outline, his right hand hovering near his gunbutt. There was something wrong! The man’s eyes were like burning red coals.

“That’s far enough!” Steele called out. The strange gunman stepped off the boardwalk and kept coming closer. “I said that’s close enough! What do you want?”

There was a laugh, the hollow, haunting laugh of a hundred demented demons. Dark shadows seemed to step from the shadows all around him, and Steele looked wildly about him with mounting fear. There were too many! He was doomed, no man could shoot his way out of this trap!

Lightning flashed and he saw that one of the killers had the face of Clell Foley.

“You! It can’t be!” Steele cried in a hoarse, choking voice. “I killed you!”

But Foley stood there, staring with dead eyes at The Widowmaker. Steele took a step back and whirled his head every which way. He saw them, all of them that he could remember.

Ed Plummer stood in silence, cradling a Henry rifle, and beside him were Ike Tyler, Ned Russo, the Reno brothers, Del Lewis and the Yavapai Kid. Steele’s head whipped about, aware of shadowy figures all around him.

“It can’t be!” he gasped, fighting down an overwhelming fear. All of the figures slowly closing in around him had the faces of dead men—men that had long since fallen before the blazing Colt .44s of The Widowmaker!

All, except for the dark shadow by the boardwalk before him; that man remained shrouded, only red, faintly glowing eyes visible. This was the end then, Steele thought. But they’ll play hob getting it done, he decided.

“Okay, you bastards!” Steele bellowed. “Draw or drag!”

Thunder roared, the unholy echo rolling across the plains—or was it the savage pounding of six-guns?—as Steele spun this way and that, firing at every shadow that moved. He had pulled his spare gun with his left hand and was blasting away with reckless abandon, grunting as hot lead seemed to sear his flesh, bloody chunks splattering at his feet. Against all odds, the shadowy gunmen began dropping by the wayside, lingering momentarily in the mud before seeming to melt away.

The shadow by the boardwalk laughed manically and took a step forward, his face in partial light, the face nearly visible. Steele had the uneasy sense that it was his own face!  Before he could see the features clearly, he heard the sharp click of a gunhammer being eared back behind him; spinning and swinging his guns about in one fluid motion Steele felt his pistols buck and they blasted away.

The red-eyed mystery man stumbled as his eyes whitened, packed with fright, and with a choking cry the man fell over on his back. Steele stepped closer, gun held ready for another shot.

“J … Jack …”

Lightning lit up the street and Steele was standing over his friend and deputy, Jim Michaels!

“No! Jim!” Steele dropped to his knees and cradled his friend’s head in his arms. “Hang on, Jim. The doc’s coming.”

“Sorry,” Jim muttered and then he was dead.

“Jim!”

Steele bolted upright in his bed, perspiration rolling off him as if he was standing beneath a waterfall. His heart was pounding; it felt like it would burst through his chest. Someone was banging on the wall, yelling for him to be quiet. Steele looked wildly around like a madman, still not completely convinced that he was alone, that he was safe. Slowly he caught his breath and regained his senses.

He looked dumbfounded at the pistol in his right fist. Steele shuddered involuntarily and angrily shoved the Colt Peacemaker back into the holster hanging over his headboard.

He was in his room at the Arizona House. He was safe. It had just been another nightmare, the kind that had stalked him ever since that day in Pie Town, when he had killed his best friend.

Swinging his feet to the floor, Steele sat on the edge of his bed, composing himself. He picked up a pitcher of water and poured some into a washbasin; he splashed cold water on his face and felt a shade better.

The lamp was on, burning low. He found out a few years ago that he had no chance of sleeping without leaving a light on; and a mighty poor chance, even if it was.

He glanced at his gunbelt, hanging over the headboard like a Damocles sword drawing him ever nearer to his ultimate fate. He felt under his pillow to reassure himself that his spare Colt was there. Steele couldn’t afford to get lax; his very existence depended on him getting into action quickly. But lack of sleep was wearing on his nerves.

He stood up and crossed to the mirror on the wall; he stared at his unkempt reflection and muttered sadly, “This ain’t no kind of life.”

His thoughts went back in time, to a spring day in 1871, in Abilene, Kansas. He was unknown then, another young man seeking to find his way in the world. Steele was 21, coming to town with the Clements herd, up from Texas. He did his work and kept his mouth shut and barely anyone noticed him; especially since another of the young cowpunchers was already a notorious mankiller. His name was Wes Hardin.

When the herd first arrived and was bedded down outside of town, Mannen Clements turned the boys loose and they raced into town. As they neared the town limits they saw a lone man standing in the center of the street; he wore a black frock coat, a bright red sash tied about his waist held a pair of .36 caliber Navy Colts. A doubled-barreled shotgun was cradled in the crook of his arm.

“Welcome to Abilene, boys,” he said pleasantly. His eyes remained cold. “You’re welcome to have fun and blow off some steam, boys. But folks hereabout want a peaceful town, so you’ll have to check your guns.”

Bert Higgins scowled. He liked to strut around as if he was something fierce. “Well, marshal, maybe I don’t like the idea of checking my gun.”

The marshal looked completely relaxed, only the muzzle of the shotgun was suddenly pointed right at Higgins’ beltline. “Those are the rules in Abilene, boys. You’re welcome here, but your guns must be checked.”

Mannen Clements had a mean temper himself, but he was sitting quietly, making no sudden movements. Suddenly he laughed. “Shuddup, Bert. Hell, boys, we’re here for fun, not gunplay. We’ll check them. We are law-abiding gents, Mr. Hickok.”

“Hickok?” Bert Higgins turned white as a ghost. “I didn’t mean nothing, Marshal. I was just funning.”

Some of the boys grumbled a little, not liking the idea of checking their guns; but none of them were foolish enough to belabor the point with Wild Bill.

Out of professional courtesy Hickok allowed young Hardin to keep his gun, knowing he’d be a marked man without it. And he let Steele keep his. Hardin had paused and turned slowly, giving Steele a careful once-over before following the boys to the Bull’s Head Saloon.

“He know how good you are with that hogleg?”Hickok asked, jerking a thumb in Hardin’s direction.

“No, sir. I kind of made it a point not to let on,” Steele explained. “Wes seems kind of touchy about things like that. It’s a wonder he ain’t had a showdown with Bert yet.”

“That’s canny, son,” Hickok nodded. “You got to be able to read men to last in this sort of business. How many have you killed?”

Steele was surprised that Hickok took it for granted that he was a gunfighter. “None, sir. I never kilt nobody.”

Hickok eyed him carefully. “You will, son. You got the mark on you.”

“I ain’t no killer, Marshal.”

“We’re all killers, son. The only difference is that some kill to destroy, others kill to protect. Killing is no easy thing, you know. So be careful about who you kill,” Hickok warned. “Some day you’ll kill the wrong man, and you’ll never sleep again.”

Staring in the cloudy hotel mirror at himself Steele lowered his head for a moment. “You were right, Bill.”

 

5

Steele came down the stairs and paused in the lobby; the night desk clerk was leaning back in his chair, snoring away. He stepped out on the walk, gently closing the door behind him. It was a chilly pre-dawn morning and he was glad he had worn his sheepskin coat.

Glancing along the street he saw no lights in the north end, but south of Twin Arrows Creek he saw the inviting lights of several of the saloons and at least one of the bordellos. That side of Two Guns never slept, only slowed during siesta. Hunching his shoulders against the cold Steele started down the street, toward the marshal’s office. His boots echoed as he moved along the boardwalk.

Many people think of the desert as always being intensely hot; it often is, during the day, but there is little to trap the heat and desert nights can be bitterly cold. Two Guns was located in the northern part of Arizona, the region known as the High Country. It sat less than five miles from the mouth of Canyon Diablo.

The night was an inky blackness with no moon or stars visible. Both sunrise and sunset come swiftly in the Arizona desert. Steele estimated that the sky would lighten in a half hour or so. For now he had to strain his eyes to see distinctive shapes.

Steele stopped suddenly, ears pricked and, from instinct, a hamd on his gunbutt. What was that noise? He backed deeper into the shadows near the dry goods store and loosened the Colt in its holster, in case he should need it quickly. Like a wild, hunted thing his eyes slowly prowled the street for any sign of danger.

When he had stopped he thought there had been one extra footfall, the faint click of a bootheel on the wooden boardwalk. Steele waited, squinting to spot anything amiss. In the old days his sharp eyes would have already picked out the man—if that’s what it was—somewhere behind him. But his eyes were slowly betraying him now. They had been for some time, but he had ignored it as if not admitting his weakening vision would solve the problem. He realized that he would have to visit Doc Magee, and soon.

“I’m just jumpy, I reckon,” he muttered, as he continued down the sidewalk. He stubbed his toe on a dark bundle and lost his balance, falling flat on his face as a gun roared from behind him. At the same moment the bundle he had tripped over gave a startled grunt.

Steele clamped his left hand over the man’s mouth and held his Colt ready in his right hand. He hadn’t seen where the shot came from, and tried to force his eyes to provide better vision. The man on the sidewalk, reeking of booze, began to struggle.

“Quiet!” Steele hissed in the drunkard’s ear. “Be still or I’ll clobber you again.”

Steele heard hoofbeats racing away. Whoever had tried to backshoot him had a horse waiting and was now gone.

The marshal touched the drunken man’s hip but there was no holster. “Where’s your gun?”

“Ain’t got one,” the man whimpered. “Please, mister, don’t hurt me. I ain’t done nothing, honest.”

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Steele said, as he stood up. He half-yanked the drunk to his wobbly feet. “Who are you?”

“Buford,” the man said in a pitiful voice. He reeked of cheap hooch. “Buford Tucker, and I ain’t got no money, mister.”

“Come with me.” With a tug on Tucker’s arm to get him moving, Steele pointed the way toward the marshal’s office.

Steele lit a coal oil lamp on one corner of his desk, which was covered by wanted posters strewn haphazardly atop it. The man before him was disheveled and smelled of stale sweat and booze.

“Sleep in one of the cells,” Steele said. “At least you’ll have a blanket.”

“Much obliged, mister.” Tucker shuffled into the nearest of the two cells and was soon snoring loudly.

The marshal’s office had a small woodstove so Steele got a fire going and the room began to warm. He sat at his desk and thought about the would-be assassin who had fired from the dark.

The fact that the man’s shot was off target was enough to confirm that he wasn’t a professional killer. A hired killer, like Jim Miller or Tom Horn, rarely missed on the first try. Still it could have been someone sent to kill him; but sent by whom? He knew that all towns had a criminal element lurking just below the façade of decency, and it would always be so as long as there was money to be made from it. Who would benefit if Two Guns remained lawless?

Seth Gratton.

From the talk he had picked up, Steele knew that Gratton owned several of the rougher dives in the south end. If there was a leader of the criminal element, it would seem to be him.

He hadn’t seen Gratton, but decided it might be time to take a look at what he was up against. The Pizen was the place to start; it was a sawdust-on-the-floor, no frills kind of place, and it was taking bets on how long he would last.

Steele started toward the sporting district when he glanced a faint light showing from Big Bloke’s restaurant. He crossed the street and peeked through the window; the light was coming from the kitchen in the rear. He tried the door, but it was locked, so he went down the side of the building and tapped lightly on the back door. He nearly jumped out of his skin when the door opened and a giant moon-faced Navajo man stood there.

“Can I help you?” the Navajo asked. He was so large that his bulk filled the doorway, yet the voice that emanated from him was softer than Steele had expected.

“Pardon me, I thought it might be Nizhoni cooking up some breakfast.”

Steele heard her voice from somewhere behind her huge brother. “Come in, Marshal; the coffee’s hot.”

Benito Manuelito stepped aside so Steele could come inside.

“Now you know why we call this place Big Bloke’s,” Nizhoni laughed.

“I’ve never seen a bigger man,” Steele admitted. “How tall are you, Benito?”

“About seven feet, I guess.”

“He’s my little brother,” Nizhoni added as she put a tray of soon-to-be-biscuits in the oven.

Benito moved about well for such a large man. He wasn’t thin, as many tall folks are, but his body seemed perfectly proportional to his height.

“I can finish up here, sis,” Benito said, as he began slicing bacon into a fry pan.

“Here, Marshal, you take the coffeepot into the dining room and I’ll bring cups.”

As Steele filled the cups, Nizhoni unlocked the front door and turned the sign around to read ‘open’. Returning to the table she added a teaspoon of sugar to her coffee.

“Do you take sugar, Mar—”

“Call me Jack.”

Her smile was dazzling. “Do you use sugar in your coffee, Jack?”

“”I like my coffee like my women—black and bitter.”

Nizhoni laughed out loud. “Wacko! That’s a great line, though. I’ve never heard that one before.”

“My Pa used to say that.”

“Was it true?”

“Durned if I know, Nizhoni; Pa was married three times. My Ma was the middle one, and she was full-blood Miccosukee, from Florida. Her name was Carrier of Hope; that’s how I got my middle name.”

“That’s nice. What happened to her?”

“Consumption,” Steele said softly. “She died when I was a young’un.”

Nizhoni patted his hand, “I’m so sorry, Jack.”

“Everyone turned to Ma when they needed help and she never turned them away. It was February, a brutally, cold day and Ma had gone to deliver Mrs. Whitfield’s baby. She took sick coming back; always coughing and in pain. It seemed like she never could get warm enough. She died a short time later.”

Nizhoni took a small sip of her coffee. “It’s still rather hot. I’d better let it sit for a while.” Changing the topic, she said, “I heard a gunshot earlier?”

“Someone took a shot at me,” Steele explained. “He missed. Lucky for me I tripped over a drunken hombre at the right time.”

“That must have been Buford Tucker.”

“It was.”

“He’s harmless,” she said. “Poor guy had his heart broken and he can’t get past it.”

Benito came from the kitchen, a plate of food in each hand. “This should hold you over for a bit, Marshal.” He set one plate before each of them.

Gracias, Benito,” Steele said. “It sure looks good.”

The breakfast consisted of thick-cut bacon, fried potatoes and fresh-from-the-oven biscuits.

“What happened to Tucker?” Steele asked as Benito returned to the kitchen.

“A girl, of course. Her name was Gertrude Beauregard—Gertie, we called her—she was a singer at The Emporium; used to draw big crowds, too.”

“That’s her photograph in Bloom’s window?”

Nizhoni nodded. “She was very popular with the cowboys. She was open and friendly, and honest as the day is long.

“One look and Buford fell head over heels in love with her, just like half the men in these parts. The difference was that Gertie fell for Buford, too. She was my friend, Jack. She confided in me; and she was worried about something. Maybe it was Seth Gratton.”

Steele raised an eyebrow, “Gratton, you say?”

“He took an interest in Gertie. There were others that wanted her, but Mr. Gratton ran them all off.”

“But not Tucker?”

“Not Buford. He and Gertie continued to see each other; they were trying to get enough money so they could go on to California.”

“What happened?” Steele asked as he lathered butter on a biscuit.

“Oh, it was tragic,” Nizhoni said. “She and Buford had a little getaway spot partway up the canyon, they called it The Love Nest. They were going to meet there that day. I guess Gertie got there early and she was climbing up to the cave, and then she must have slipped. Buford found her body at the bottom of the canyon. He’s never gotten over that. Clara took it hard, too.”

Steele bolted upright in his chair. “Clara?”

“Her sister,” Nizhoni said. “She owns a … finishing school … across the creek.”The front door opened and the first customers began to trickle in. “I better help Benny. Looks like it’s going to be a busy morning.”

“Could Tucker have killed her?”

“Buford? No, Jack. He was such a sweet man back then. All the ladies around here saw him as a knight in shining armor, as a hero.”

“Now,” Steele said as he stood up, “He’s the hero of many a fine bottle.”

Sitting alone at the table Steele slowly finished his coffee and thought of Clara Beauregard; she was here, in Two Guns. And after all this time.

 

6

Bet Thayer leaned an elbow on the bar, holding a glass of whiskey in his left hand. “Another night of merriment, Joe.”

“Iron Joe” McGinnity nodded as he scanned the near-full house at The Providence. “Not that I be wishing for ill luck, mind ye, but I wouldn’t be minding so much if the railroad work stayed shut down a wee bit longer, lad. It’s raking in the money we be doing.”

“That we are, Joe,” Thayer agreed. “Has there been any news on the railroad? Any word on when construction might start again?”

“Not a wee whisper, lad,” McGinnity said. In a conspiratorial whisper, he added, “‘Tis being said around that the A & P is to be conducting another study.”

“What the devil can they be studying this time? The problem is quite simple, find a way across Canyon Diablo, and then build a bridge.”

“Aye, the direct way is often the best, lad.”

Bet Thayer motioned to one of the three bartenders on duty. “Get me a beer, will you, Lute?”

“Coming right up, Bet.” Lute drew a beer from the tap and slid it down the bar top. “Anything for you, Joe?”

“Not now, Luther me boy,” McGinnity said, his eyes fixed on the front door. “Well, I’ll be. Look who’s just come in, Bet.”

Thayer turned casually and spotted Ace Dixon. Dixon fancied himself a gambler, but he would be outclassed playing with the high rollers that usually frequented The Providence.

“By blazes, ‘tis Ace Dixon,” McGinnity whistled softly. “He ain’t tried his luck on our tables before.”

Bet smiled. “I guess every polecat feels lucky once in a while, Joe.”

McGinnity snorted. “Let’s hope he’s wrong, lad.”

“See those boys yonder, Bet?” Lute, the barkeep, said, nodding toward an ongoing game off to one side. “They’re good ol’ boys; I worked with ‘em on the King ranch, down Texas way.”

“They are quite far from home.”

“Lute already talked me ear off about them,” McGinnity said. “They kept a-hearing how ye be here in Two Guns and curiosity got the best of them. They rode all this way a-hoping for the chance to play at your table, lad.”

“It’d mean a lot to ‘em,” Lute added.

“I’ll have a brandy, Lute,” Bet told the bartender. He turned and watched the game a bit. When the barkeep returned with the drink, Bet smiled, “I shall do you one better, Lute. I will play at their table.”

The bartender grinned. “Thanks, Bet.”

One reason that The Providence did such a booming business was because of him, Thayer knew. Cowpokes, miners and other sporting men came from miles around to play at his table. With Doc Holliday and Luke Short gone—and Bat Masterson living in New York City—Bet Thayer was just about the most famous gambler in the west.

“Who is the fourth man?”

“Says his name be Arbuckle,” McGinnity groaned. “I don’t know much about ‘im, laddie. Said he be from Baltimore; he has the look of a sharper, if ever I saw one.”

“Lady Luck appears to be smiling his way tonight.”

“I been keeping me eye on him, but I ain’t caught him a-doing anything crooked, lad. If it’s a cheat he be; he’s very good at it.”

“Let’s see if I can figure his game out.” Thayer picked up his drink and strolled over to the table. “Anybody mind if I sit in a few hands?”

“Be an honor, Mr. Thayer,” a blond man said, as he gathered up the cards and began shuffling. “I’m Stan and my saddle pards are Billy and Myles.”

The other gambler barely looked up. “Roscoe Arbuckle.”

“Got room for another, gents?” Ace Dixon asked.

“Any objections?” Stan asked; no one voiced dissent. “Pull up a chair, friend.” Stan began dealing, “Five card stud.”

Bet Thayer liked to watch people, to study them without appearing to do so. He would sit on the bench outside The Providence for hours, whittling away and seeing everything. He knew that Crazy Pete never came into town from the same direction twice in a row, and always left town by a different route than when he entered; he noticed that whenever his wife was out of town, visiting her sister in Santa Fe, the banker spent a lot of time with one of the ladies at Miss Clara’s Finishing School for Young Women—a place that all agreed was the finest whorehouse in Apache County; and he knew that young Wally Dalton spent every Thursday afternoon behind the livery stable practicing his fast draw.

But now Thayer was perplexed. He had never seen Ace Dixon in The Providence before; Ace was strictly a ham-and-egger with the pasteboards and kept his gambling confined to the Pizen or Bucket O’ Blood.

So why was he here now? That question nagged at Thayer and threw off his game slightly, a fact he didn’t realize until he was bluffed out of a hand by Myles, who held a king high.

The game went on for an hour without any incidents, and then Thayer noticed Ace Dixon do a bottom deal; and he could tell from the frown on Arbuckle’s face that the gambler had noticed it, too. Arbuckle folded, Stan and Billy called and Bet folded.

His eye caught Arbuckle, who gave the slightest shrug.

“I believe I’ll call it a night, gentlemen,” Arbuckle announced abruptly. “It’s been a long day.”

The gambler’s luck had taken a downturn since Thayer had entered the game, but he was still cashing out slightly ahead. Arbuckle shot Thayer a brief, quizzical look as he departed the game.

Several times Dixon made clumsy attempts at making slick moves, such as palming a card or not really cutting the deck. Bet Thayer understood what was happening; Dixon was inviting an accusation of cheating. But Thayer acted as if he hadn’t noticed and he could see that Ace was getting frustrated. His mind wasn’t on his cards and Dixon suddenly lost a large pot to Thayer. Looking down, Dixon suddenly realized he had lost all his chips. He looked up and locked eyes with Thayer.

“What are you waiting for, Dixon?” Bet asked mildly. “You came here to do a job, did you not?”

Ace Dixon tipped his chair over as he leapt to his feet. “You calling me a cheater?”

Thayer’s left hand drummed on the tabletop as he stared coolly at Dixon. His right hand rested on his thigh, only inches from the pistol behind his belt that was hidden from sight due to the length of his checkered vest.

“Now, would be the time to offer your kingdom for a horse, Ace,” Thayer smiled. “A fast horse, one that you could ride out of town immediately.”

“All them fancy words don’t cut no ice with me, Thayer. I don’t take backtalk from no one,” Dixon said as his hand swept toward his gun.

A Remington appeared in Thayer’s right hand as if by magic and it spoke emphatically; Dixon took a step backwards, shock etched on his face, his gun hadn’t even cleared leather.

“Damn, y … you,” Dixon managed as he took a half-step backward, staggered and then corkscrewed to a sitting position. He stared at the gun in his hand, but as he tried to lift it it grew too heavy and dropped from his hand. Ace Dixon’s lips moved but made no sound and he died on the polished floor of The Providence.

Bet spotted the marshal standing in the doorway. “Good evening, Jack, I heard you were now a resident of our fair community,” the gambler said as he holstered his gun. “I see you still know how to make an entrance upon your arrival.”

“Someone was hoping to make it an exit,” Steele replied. The crowd parted as he crossed to Bet’s table. “What happened?”

“He called the game,” Bet commented dryly. “But he was holding the wrong cards.”

Arbuckle was standing at the bar. “It’s like he said, Marshal. I got out of the game because it looked like that fellow was deliberately cheating, as if he wanted Thayer to call him on it.”

McGinnity introduced himself, indicating the dead man, he added, “’Tis Ace Dixon, Marshal. Strictly small time. This be the first time he ever came in here to gamble; usually he hung out at the Pizen or Bucket O’ Blood. Funny, though, him a-coming after Bet.”

“How’s that?”

“He was saddle partners with that fella ye shot t’other day—Pike. I’d have figured him for taking a shot at you, Marshal.”

Saddle partners in the West meant a lot more than mere friendship. At a time when a man riding alone was in constant danger, a saddle partner provided loyalty and support. Sometimes partners would stay together for years. As Pike’s saddle partner, it would have been expected of Ace Dixon to try and avenge his friend’s death.

So why had he chosen instead to come after Bet, Steele wondered?

Steele’s mind turned to that mysterious shot from the dark; that could have been Dixon out for revenge.

 

7

The Prescott stage was due in at noon and people started to gather near the Wells Fargo office to watch the passengers getting off. It was the usual custom in western towns; even some of the womenfolk stood under the awnings—some with colorful parasols held by white lacy gloves—to watch the stage arrive.

Steele strolled down the sidewalk, a splendid example of a wary predator at the height of its power. This was his element, what he had known for three decades; his senses were keyed to every sound, poised to act with the merest warning. Somehow, knowing the spectre of instant death walked beside him made Steele feel more alive. Taming a wild town was a war, a war that he had emerged from unscathed so many times before.

Spotting Nizhoni he tipped his hat to her.

“Wow, a gentleman,” she smiled. “I think that’s the first time any man in Two Guns greeted a lady so elegantly.”

“Men often act the fool when it comes to ladies.”

“And you?” she asked coyly. “Have you ever acted foolishly when it comes to women?”

“All the durned time,” Steele said with a grin. “The prettier the girl, the more foolish I become.”

“Is that so?”

“It is, ma’am—and I’m feeling right foolish as we speak.”

She laughed and innocently touched his arm, “You flatterer, Jack.”

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready for the lunch crowd?”

“Trying to get rid of me already, are you?”

“No, no, I didn’t mean it like that,” he sputtered, but Nizhoni was smiling. She was teasing him, he realized. “I meant the stage is due in and I figure the passengers will be hungry.”

“Benny has it under control,” she said. “I just like to watch the stage arrive. You never know when you might meet your Prince Charming.”

“Well I scouted for a Russian prince who came over here to hunt buffalo back in ‘74,” Steele remarked. “But he wasn’t very charming.”

“You are an interesting man, Jack. Cullen was telling me about you the other day. Why, I had no idea you were so famous.”

“Nothing to brag about, Nizhoni,” he shrugged. He let his gaze sweep the other side of the street. “I just did what needed doing at the time.”

“You’re too modest, Jack. Listening to Cullen tell it, a body would think you had to be ten-feet tall and bulletproof.”

“As you can see, he exaggerated a little bit.”

“Cole Farnum mentioned you, too.”

Steele was surprised. “He did? What’d he have to say?”

“He really respects you; he told me so,” Nizhoni added. “He says you’re probably the only man alive who could clean up Two Guns.”

“I’m sure—”

“Hey, Jack!”

Steele glanced toward the stage depot and saw Mayor Garza waving to him. “Duty calls, I’m afraid.”

The mayor was standing with a group that included Judge Akeley, banker Mitch Hall, Town Councilman Aldrich, Jeff Bloom and a stooped, gray-haired man wearing a black string tie.

“Jack, this is Doc Magee.”

“How do you do, sir?” Doc said, holding out his bony hand. “Dr. Joseph Magee, at your service.”

For an older man, the strength in his grip surprised Steele. “A pleasure, Doc.”

“The railroad is sending a man out here to study the situation,” Garza said. “He’s probably going to need a nursemaid, him being a greenhorn. I was hoping you might recommend someone trustworthy?”

“Cullen Bryant’s your man, Mayor. He’s an honest hombre—and can handle trouble if it comes his way.”

“See, I told you he’d know someone, Joey,” the newspaperman said. “That’s who I would’ve picked, too.”

“Is he going to be on the stage?” Hall asked.

“Not sure,” the mayor replied. “He should be here today, or next time the stage comes through.”

As the mayor and the other businessmen chatted about politics, Steele glanced across the street; Seth Gratton was standing among a small group of his cronies.

Much of the talk in saloons and around campfires was of various gunmen, gamblers and prominent members of a community, so a man from Dodge City, that had never been to El Paso, could pick Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire from a line-up just by the descriptions he’d heard, and an El Paso gent could do the same for Dodge City’s Wyatt Earp.  That was how Steele knew two of the men Gratton was speaking with; Cole Farnum had a modest reputation as a gunman, and there were fliers out on Red Dooin for a killing in Nevada.

It wasn’t until Gratton turned to speak to the man behind him that Steele recognized George Gruber, suspected to be the leader of an outlaw gang that specialized in bank robberies and stage hold-ups. What was he doing here, the marshal wondered? True, as the newest boomtown, Two Guns would naturally attract sporting men, hardcases and ne’er-do-wells from all over the west, but Gruber’s activities were mostly in Kansas and the Indian Territory. Most recently, Steele remembered talk of Gruber up in Colorado, where he was thought to have held up the stage between Denver and Creede.

“It’s like this every other week, or so, Marshal.”

“Didn’t know there were so many people in town, Jeff.”

“Guess it’s the lack of decent entertainment that draws folks to the depot,” the newspaperman said. “Of course I come just to see who’s getting off the stage. You never know when news might happen.”

Glancing across the street, Steele noticed that Gratton and his men had vanished. Why had they left before the stage arrived? That made no sense and Steele commented on it to Bloom.

“Probably has something to take care of,” the newsman shrugged. “He owns several businesses south of the line, you know.”

“Maybe. You’re probably right, I’m just getting jumpy,” Steele said. “It’s been too quiet lately.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” Garza asked.

“Usually, but this has a different feel to it, Mayor. Have you ever been in a town when it goes hog wild?”

“Just this one.”

“There’s a tension in the air, your senses warn you that something is going to happen soon to blow the lid off,” Steele explained. “If a town is going to survive, it has to be tamed before it gets that far.”

The stage came rattling down the street, pursued by a cloud of choking dust. Jeff Bloom walked over to watch the passengers disembark; Steele took a careful look around, confirming that Gratton was nowhere to be seen.

“Well, I’ll be hornswoggled, if’n it ain’t Jack Steele!” the bald-headed stage driver called out, as he wrapped the reins around the brake. “How the hell you been, boy?”

A wide smile was on his face as Steele turned. “Curly Kissick, you old sidewinder! I didn’t know you were in these parts?”

“Aw, you know me, boy, I always did get around,” Curly said as he climbed down from the box. “I heard talk they was trying to get you to put on the badge again. How long you been here?”

“Almost three weeks,” Steele said.

“Blue Blazes, I’ll be damned! Another week, Jack, an’ your gonna be the longest serving marshal Two Guns ever had.”

“There’s a lot to be said for longevity, Curly.”

Curly’s wrinkled face erupted in a toothless grin. “Why, you’re preaching to the choir, son. I was a-running hog wild out here when most of these youngsters was still sucking on their mammy’s teats.”

Soft-spoken Harlan Kincaid, one of two tellers at the bank, interrupted their conversation. “Pardon me, gentlemen. But I need to let the driver know that Mr. Hall needs his signat 2ure on some paperwork.”

“Tell him I’ll be along pronto,” Curly said. When the teller left, the driver gave Steele a wink, “That means there’ll be money on this stage.”

“C’mon, you old codger, and I’ll buy you a beer for old time’s sake.”

“Next trip, Jack. I got to make up for some lost time,” Curly Kissick said. “I’m going to grab a bite, and then pull out for The Crossing.”

“Alright, Curly. I’ll be here when you come back—God willing and the creek don’t rise!”

The crowd that had gathered for the stage’s arrival had dispersed as folks went about their own business. As he started to turn away Steele caught sight of a figure in the alley between the assayer and the bank. An old Navajo emerged from the alley and crossed the street. His face was lined with wisdom, his white hair hung long down his back. Though Steele hadn’t met him, he knew this was Crazy Pete. The old man was slightly stooped, but otherwise appeared to be in fine shape. Pete disappeared into Big Bloke’s.

Steele walked along the boardwalk to the assay office. It was a large, mostly open room, a counter to the right as you entered and a table with a scale setting atop it stood against the back wall, beside a flight of stairs leading to the second floor.

A bell tinkled as he opened the door and a man, who had been crouched behind the counter, stood up.

“Howdy, Marshal. What can I do for you?”

“You Tetlow?” Steele asked, indicating a nameplate on the countertop that proclaimed “Lee Tetlow, assayer.”

“Sure am. No need to ask who you are. Glad to see you, Marshal,” Tetlow smiled. “I lost some money on you, uh, I mean—”

“No offense, Tetlow. I’m just glad you lost the bet.”

“Yeah, guess you would be,” Tetlow agreed. “Can I help you with anything?”

“Just saw Crazy Pete.”

“He comes by every month or so. He doesn’t talk much, keeps to himself for the most part. Same thing every time; he brings in a pile of rocks and I pretend they’re worth something and give him three dollars. Then he goes over to Big Bloke’s for a meal before leaving town.”

“Where does he go?”

“No one knows,” Tetlow replied. “He just wanders around the desert; every now and then some rider will report seeing him wandering aimlessly and talking to his mules. No one knows where he lives, or how he gets by.”

“And you pay him three dollars out of the goodness of your heart, I suppose?”

“You caught me, Marshal,” Tetlow chuckled. “I have an ulterior motive. You see I’ve been planning to build a stone wall out back. My wife’s wanted a garden for some time now.”

“Your wife?”

“She’s back east now,” Tetlow said. “Her sister took sick and Cora went back to help out. Pete just wanders around and he brings me rocks that I’d never have time to gather up myself.”

“He looks mighty old.”

“No one knows how old he is, Marshal. He was here before any of us biligaanas—that’s what Navajos call Americans—arrived here. Even the Navajos around here just shrug and say he was always here, always old.”

Steele indicated the scales, “You get much color around here?”

“Nothing to write home about. Every once in a while someone would come in with a bit of dust. There was talk about gold up in the hills, but I think it’s played out. Then there was some mining—nickel and iron ore,” Tetlow said. “That slowed down, too, after about six months. Though, the Bath Iron Works still makes a small profit. ”

Leaving the assay office, Steele glanced down the alley; the mules were gone.

 

8

 

Steele was amazed when he first walked through the door of Miss Clara’s Finishing School for Girls; the opulence stood out in direct contrast to the stark harshness of the desert around Canyon Diablo. She had come a long way from that crib in Dodge City.

A large, glittering chandelier hung in the center of the parlor room, where several men loitered on plush furniture while awaiting their turns with the soiled doves. The room was awash in soft light as smaller lamps, which also appeared to be crystal, were well-placed throughout the room. A piano stood on one side of the room, near a small bar that seemed well-stocked. Several of the younger girls acted as waitresses..

Miss Clara wore a silk dress that left little to the imagination, and was adorned with a diamond necklace and two large rings on her left hand and a smaller diamond ring on her right.  Spotting Steele, she excused herself from a conversation with a couple of furloughed railroad workers and glided across the room with her arms outstretched.

“Jack! I was starting to think you had forgotten all about me,” she smiled. Her hair was still blonde and tumbled playfully past her shoulders. Her lips were painted a delicate red. She was in her mid-forties now and her once ample bosom seemed to sag a bit and she had a few extra pounds on her hips; but she was still an attractive woman.

“I’ve been keeping busy, Clara; breaking up fights when they become too one-sided and riding herd on some testy hombres.”

“Well, you’re here now, that’s all that matters,” she said. She took his hand and led the way down a small hall to her office. “Tang will be glad to see you.”

Wong Tang was of slight build and would seem an unlikely choice to be doorman at any establishment, but Steele had seen him in action, moving like a tiger, with flashing hands and thunderous feet that could take down much larger men.

“How’s he been?”

“The same, Jack. He doesn’t talk much, except to me. Every once in a while some drunken cowboy will get it in his head that he can handle Tang, so far no one has,” Clara said. She dropped into a rocking chair covered with a Navajo blanket. “You here for one of the girls?”

Steele sat on a couch in the middle of the room. “I heard you have a new girl here?”

Clara shook her head. “She’s not part of the line, Jack. She’s strictly a songbird. Her name’s Dixie Chalice. I’m working with her some. You do remember I used to be a pretty good songbird in my day?”

“You were pretty good at a lot of things, Clara.”

Her cheeks flushed. “Aw, you; keep your mind out of the bedroom.”

“And the hayloft, the storeroom, the closet—”

“Okay, I get it. We did have us some good old times, didn’t we?” she recalled fondly. “We made a pair, you and I.”

Steele nodded, “We’ve had our times—good and bad, Clara. You were always there for me. That always meant a lot, you know.”

“I still am.” She held up her right hand. “Do you remember the night you gave this ring to me?”

“I do,” he said quietly.

She smiled ruefully. “I wish you’d said that back in Dodge City, Jack.”

“I wanted to,” he replied. He found it difficult to maintain eye contact. “You know how it was with me, Clara. I never knew when some six-fingered greenhorn was gonna try for a reputation by killing The Widowmaker.

“How could I marry you—or anybody? Every morning I left home, you’d have to wonder if I’d be carried back stretched out on a door. Every time you heard a gun go off, you’d cringe, always wondering if it was me lying in the street. That’s no kind of a life to offer a girl, Clara.”

Clara softly rocked in her chair. “That wasn’t your judgment to make, Jack. It was mine.”

“Well, it’s in the past now,” Steele said, as he stood up. “I just dropped by to say hello to an old friend.”

“Don’t be a stranger,” Clara called after him as he walked out. Her eyes moistened and a tear slide down her cheek as she whispered to herself, “It’s all in the past. Sure it is.”

Steele returned to the parlor to find Wong Tang facing the front door, where Jed Wright stood belligerently.

“You not welcome here,” Tang said. “You come no more.”

“I go wherever I please, Chinaman,” Wright said hotly. He slurred his words and was unsteady on his feet. “I’m here for a woman, and I’ll have one, by gawd!”

“Not here. Miss Clara say no girl for you here,” Tang replied, standing almost as if he were bored. “You please go away now.”

“Get outta my way, Chinaman, or I’ll break your scrawny yellow neck!”

Wong Tang wore a red kimono-type robe embroidered with black dragons on the sleeves. He stood, barefoot, saying not a word, the stern set of his jaws made it clear that he would not move.

“By gawd, I’ve had enough,” Wright bellowed, as his right hand swept down for his gun. He started to raise his pistol when Tang’s sharp chop on his wrist sent the gun sailing aside.

Even as he knocked the pistol away Tang continued moving, spinning suddenly and using a stunning backkick to the midsection to send Wright faltering backwards, out the door and landing on his back at the bottom of the stairs.

Wong Tang stood on the porch, with Steele emerging behind him.

“What’s this about, Tang?”

“Last time here, he beat up girl. Miss Clara say he not welcome any more.”

Stepping down from the porch Steele grabbed Wright by the scruff of the neck and jerked him roughly to his feet.

“You’re under arrest, mister,” the marshal said. “Disturbing the peace.”

“You can’t arrest me,” the drunk cowboy shouted. “Do you know who I am? I’m, Wright!”

“This time you’re wrong.”

 

======

 

Curly Kissick was squeezed into a small crevice among the rocks. He had used his bandana to stop one of the wounds in his side, but there was nothing else he could do. They knew they had gotten lead into him, knew he had been hit hard.

They had tried to finish him off, but Curly had been smart enough to grab a Winchester before he jumped from the box. He made it too hot for the outlaws; he thought he’d even nicked one.

“Forget about him, Gruber,” someone said. “He ain’t going nowhere, the shape he’s in.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right, Red,” Gruber replied. “We’ll kill the team, just to make sure he can’t get a-hold of one of the horses.”

Gritting his teeth against the pain Curly flinched with each shot. If they had left the team, he might have been able to crawl out and cut one of the horses loose. It was doubtful if he could have held on until Two Guns, but it would have been a chance. He had none now. In his current condition there was no chance that he could walk the fifteen miles back to town.

Perspiration dripped down his face, stinging his eyes, and the blazing sun was frying him alive. He wanted—needed—a drink, his throat was dry, his tongue like a dead stick in his mouth.

“Damn it to hell,” he rasped. “Always reckoned it’d end up like this someday.”

There was a canteen in the driver’s box on the stage. Could he reach it? He’d have to get to the coach somehow and then climb up—that would be the most difficult problem, Curly knew. For no particular reason he thought of John Carrier Steele and the drink offer he’d declined. How he wished he could have that drink now!

If he was going to reach the stage, he knew he had better start moving. Using the Winchester, Curly managed to push himself over onto his stomach; he tried to push himself erect, but was too weak. He crawled, slowly and painfully over the rocky ground before him. The sharp edges of the rocks cut into the palms of his hands and his knees, blood seemed to be leaking from every pore in his body.

Still he crawled, inch by bloody inch; desperate fingers clawing at the sand and trying to pull him along. Curly Kissick knew his string was played out, that he was going to die in the desert. But he was going to spit in the Devil’s face, he was going to have one last victory in life—he was going to have one final drink of water.

Curly paused and looked up; he saw the body of a young cowboy half hanging from the coach’s door. There had been four passengers; the outlaws had taken the two women with them; Curly had heard their screaming and pleading.

Curly Kissick collapsed in the sand, his muscles screaming in agony and unable to move again. He thought he was delirious, his mind playing a last, bitter trick on him, as he felt hands lifting his head. Curly opened his eyes to mere slits and looked into the concerned face of Crazy Pete.

“You drink, biligaana tso,” Pete said. Biligaana tso meant “fat white man.”

Holding Curly’s head up with his left hand, Pete tipped his canteen and allowed a trickle of water to squirm down the stage driver’s swollen throat. It hurt going down, burning, it seemed, but Curly wanted more.

“Easy,” Pete said softly. “Drink slow.”

After a couple of sips more, Curly started to regain his senses a bit. “Gracias, Pete.”

The ancient Navajo looked at Curly’s bloody chest and arms. He saw at least four bullet holes. “You not make it.”

“I know,” Curly groaned. “I’m done in, Pete. Help me to the stage; let me die in the shade.”

It took some effort and left them both panting, but Curly Kissick sat in the shade, his back against a wheel. Something glittering caught his eye and he slowly reached out to get it.

“I’ll be hornswoggled,” he said. How did a diamond get here, he wondered? Then he recalled the last-minute box from Tetlow, the assayer. If anyone had diamonds in Two Guns, it had to be Tetlow. He handed the gem to Pete. “Take it to Steele. Tell him … tell … Gruber …”

Pete climbed up to the stagecoach’s seat and got the driver’s canteen. He set it in Curly’s feeble hands.

“I can do no more for you.”

“You’ve done plenty, amigo,” Curly Kissick said, managing a weak smile. “Ahee’hee.”

“You are welcome.”

 

9

Doc Magee sat at a solid oaken desk, studying a thick medical book before him; the room had an examination table along one side, a threadbare couch and two oak chairs for patients and a cabinet beside the desk filled with bottles of liquids or pills. A stand beside the examination table held various medical tools; such as scalpels, forceps, thermometers and a stethoscope. The room was small, the only light coming from the coal-oil lamp on Magee’s desk and what late-afternoon rays managed to slip through the blinds on two large front windows.

The doctor took his spectacles off and turned toward his patient. “You’ve seen other doctors, I presume?”

Steele nodded. “A sawbones in Kansas City; he was one of the few people who knew about Bill Hickok’s condition.”

“I imagine you would have to be particular with whoever you saw,” Magee surmised. “He’d have to be discreet, considering your occupation and standing within the pantheon of shootists.”

“Wouldn’t do to see some loose-lipped sawbones,” Steele agreed. “I’d heard John Slaughter speak of you, so when I heard you were in Two Guns, I decided taking the job Mayor Garza offered would be good cover to visit you.”

“Thank you for your faith in me,” Magee said earnestly. Taking a breath, he added, “But that’s about all I can offer you.”

The disappointment showed on Steele’s face. When he spoke again, his voice was subdued. “There’s no mistake?”

Magee shook his gray head slowly. “No, it’s glaucoma, Marshal. But, I suppose, you’ve heard that before?”

“Yeah, I have,” Steele admitted. “I just didn’t want to believe it.”

“I can order you a special pair of spectacles, with a tint that will help cut down the glare. But there’s little I can do. I’ll study up more on it and see if I can come up with something.”

“Thanks, Doc.” Standing up, Steele put his hat on and started for the door. Pausing, he glanced over his shoulder, “I’d be obliged if you didn’t mention this, Doc.”

“Not a peep from me, Marshal. You want me to order those spectacles? Might take three or four week to get them here.”

“You don’t think I’ll still be here to wear them?”

Magee’s face flushed, “Oh, no, Marshal, I didn’t—”

“Forget it,” the lawman laughed. “You order them. That’ll give me some incentive to stick around.”

Still standing on the doctor’s porch, Steele noticed a rider walking his horse down the center of Hell Street. The man was middle-aged, with life’s weariness etched on his face and furrowed brow. The rider looked neither right nor left.

“What is it?” Magee asked as he stepped out onto the porch.

“Could be trouble.”

Magee watched as the rider pulled up in front of the marshal’s office and got stiffly down from the saddle. “Looks like a worn-out sodbuster to me.”

“I reckon he has busted sod a time or two, Doc,” Steele nodded. “But only about six feet at a time.”

The man had peeked into the marshal’s office, and then stood on the sidewalk, looking around. He started across the street and went into Big Bloke’s.

“Well, he does walk a certain way,” Doc acknowledged. “Kind of like you, Marshal, he doesn’t let his right hand get very far from his gun. I’d say you two are kindred spirits.”

“That’s Wes Wheeler.”

“Wheeler! The gunfighter from the Neuces Strip?” Magee was taken aback. “I wonder what he’s doing in Two Guns.”

“Guess it’s my job to go ask him.”

“Are you friends?”

“Not so’s you’d notice, Doc. We’ve seen each other around a time or two. Fact is, he killed a friend of mine in Fort Griffin some years back.”

“A good friend?”

“He was good—but not as good as he thought,” Steele said slyly. “Never could handle whiskey, though. Three drinks, and he thought he was as good as Wild Bill; five drinks and he decided to prove it.”

Doc Magee scratched his jaw. “He went to the marshal’s office first, Jack. Do you suppose he knows you’re the law here?”

“It’s likely; news like that travels far and fast.”

“He could be looking for you.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be polite to keep him waiting,” Steele said grimly. Starting down the steps, he called over his shoulder, “Keep your medical bag handy, Doc, somebody may need it soon—and it  could be me.”

Steele stepped off the shady porch and hitched his gunbelt into a better position before starting down the street. Magee noticed the subconscious way Steele flipped the thong off his pistol’s hammer.

 

10

The lone rider cautiously approached Wolfe’s Crossing, a good place for an ambush. Some years past an ambitious peddler named Herman Wolfe had built a stone house on one side of the San Juan River, it was a spot where the river was narrow and the peaceful water only came halfway up a horse’s legs. The trader had long since moved away and had been forgotten, but the place was still called Wolfe’s Crossing.

Apaches had raided this way in years past and killed several people at the post, and set it on fire. The roof had burned off, but the stone stood charred and silent; kept as a reminder even as Wolfe rebuilt. He had left some years back, it was said he went to California, but no one seemed to know for certain. About three years ago Lance Brigo had moved in to resume operations.  Brigo was Mexican, mixed with Yaqui, and rumor had it that he had drifted up from the Live Oak country in Texas. He cleaned up the place, pulled weeds, built a corral and added a barn across from the trading post. The Apaches had come back twice; three of them were buried in a little cemetery behind the barn.

Wolfe’s Crossing wasn’t an official stage station, but it was a logical stop on the route between Flagstaff and Two Guns. Curly Kissick had suggested to the stage company agent that several horses be left at The Crossing so there would be a fresh team for the last, rugged stretch from the river to the town at the mouth of Canyon Diablo. In time it became an unofficial stage stop; the company paid Brigo to provide meals for the stage passengers and to care for the horses. Since the stage stopped there every two or three weeks Wolfe’s became a place to send or pick-up mail.

It was a long, hot ride to Wolfe’s Crossing so Brigo began brewing homemade beer and many of the passengers found it better than nothing.

The strange rider on the grulla knew the backstory, but he wasn’t thinking of it now.

Commodore Perry Owens—he was named after the War of 1812 naval hero, Oliver Hazard Perry—was the sheriff of newly created Navajo County; nearly a decade earlier he had served as the lone lawman for Apache County, which was larger than the state of Rhode Island. Apache County had been split up, creating Navajo County; and the governor had appointed Owens its first county sheriff.

Owens dressed flamboyantly, fringed deerskin shirt, hand-tooled leather boots, a bandolier crossed his chest and a wide sombrero cover his reddish hair, which curled well past his shoulders. His mustache and beard were neatly trimmed. He wore a wide gunbelt with two guns. There was a Winchester in the boot, a weapon that Owens was known to be quite proficient with.

The sheriff paused at the riverbank, carefully looking over the stone house with a half dozen horses tied in front. Owens was trying to track down a notorious outlaw known as Kid Swingle. If the Kid was at the trading post, then it was likely he had some men with him.

Perry Owens slipped the thongs off his pistols—he was a dead shot with either hand—and gave his horse a gentle kick in the ribs to get it moving.

“Let’s go, boy; might as well see what’s a-waiting for us.”

Brigo was standing just inside the open door, his back to his patrons, who were busy eating and drinking. He had made food, expecting the stage from Two Guns, but it had yet to show. Brigo was ready for trouble because he had recognized George Gruber, and suspected the bandit gang was planning to rob the stage at The Crossing. If they did, he’d have to take a hand, Brigo figured. What happened elsewhere along the route was none of his affair, but The Crossing was his and he’d defend it to the death, if need be.

“Hey, Mex! You got anything stronger’n this mule piss?”

“No, senor,” Brigo replied without turning around. His eyes had spotted the rider slowly crossing the San Juan River. “Solimente cerveza.”

“Well, for chris’sakes, get me another.”

Si.” Brigo turned from the door, feeling a little apprehensive; he recognized the approaching rider and knew that he could be bringing trouble with him. Perry Owens wasn’t one to be deterred by odds; if he was after any of the men at The Crossing, Owens would not hesitate to take action.

After serving the man he had heard called Tex, Brigo returned behind his makeshift bar, which were planks laid across four upturned barrels. He kept his shotgun back there in case he had to handle any sudden difficulties.

George Gruber stared silently at his nearly untouched beer, his mind lost in thought. The take from the stage had been $40,000, just like Seth Gratton had reported. Now Gruber thought of the diamonds. They had been an unexpected find, and Gratton had not mentioned them. Did he not know about them? Gruber knew Gratton was a dangerous man and didn’t want to get him angry; but if he didn’t know about the diamonds, how could he be mad?

“What’s eating you, George?” Red Dooin asked, keeping his voice low.

“Just thinking.”

“About Curly Kissick?” Tex Peacock asked contemptuously.

“That, too,” Gruber nodded. “A lot of folks will be upset when they hear about Curly. Far as that goes, he was good friends with Steele.”

In the west, getting shot was a hazard of the job for shotgun riders, but the driver was seldom molested, as long as he didn’t reach for a gun. People got upset when a driver was killed, and Curly Kissick had been quite popular. Gruber knew that half of the men at the Hashknife would string them up if they had the chance. He was thinking about making a split from Gratton. This murder of the driver was bad business.

“Aw, he warn’t nothing,” Tex said dismissively. “I kilt drivers before.”

“Still, it doesn’t sit right.”

“What choice did we have, after the kid used your name?” Red said, trying to convince himself it had been necessary. “We had to kill them.”

Gruber had operated for twenty years, holding up stages and robbing banks, and rarely had anyone been killed; he liked it that way, knowing if you killed one of their neighbors a posse would try harder to catch the outlaws. This hold-up had gone wrong from the start. First Tex had deliberately shot the driver, and then Billy Barney, the new kid from the Hashknife, had made the cardinal mistake of using Gruber’s name.

After that there was no choice, the passengers had to be taken care of. Gruber had no qualms about shooting the men, but molesting and murdering the women bothered him; he had taken no part in it, but he still knew he was responsible. He avoided looking at Red, knowing the veteran robber also found that part of the job unappealing.

Tex, on the other hand, was the force behind it, and the others agreed eagerly.

Maybe, Gruber thought, it was time to get out of the business. He’d been lucky for too long, and he knew that luck always played out in the end. Besides, Tex Peacock was becoming more belligerent, and it was obvious that a showdown was coming. They heard the horse snort outside and all gave a little jump.

“Take a look, Clem,” Gruber said.

Clem Labine, who was nearest the door, peeked out. “Wowee! Looks like the circus come to town.”

Gruber didn’t look around when the rider entered the building, but Red glanced over and his jaw dropped.

“Damn,” he whispered.

“Who is it?”

“Perry Owens.”

Gruber stiffened as if he’d been slapped across the face. Commodore Perry Owens was about the last man he wanted to run into now.

Owens glanced around the room as the outlaws did their best to look innocent, except for Clem Labine who stared belligerently at the sheriff. Owens glanced at him, noting the fresh scratches on his cheek.

“Howdy, Brigo,” Owens said, stepping to the corner of the bar, so he could keep the other patrons in sight. “How’s things?”

Bueno. The stage from Two Guns is late, though,” the Mexican said casually. He set a beer on the counter in front of Owens. “That’s unusual when Curly Kissick is driving.”

“That old sidewinder probably had to stop for a quick one,” Owens said. He took a sip of his beer before continuing, “Looking for Kid Swingle, Brigo. You seen him?”

Brigo shook his woolly head. “Last I heard he was hanging out around Mucho Ganado’s village, up north.”

Owens took another healthy swallow of beer. “Steele in Two Guns?”

“Si, senor. He has lasted longer than any other marshal.”

Owens nodded. “Maybe his luck is running out. Word is someone from Two Guns sent a wire offering Wes Hardin $1,000 to kill Steele.”

Unable to restrain himself, Tex whistled loudly. “Hardin and Steele, now that’d be something to see!”

Owens glanced over toward the table where Tex sat with Gruber and Red. His eyes lingered on Gruber; Owens had a nagging thought that he knew that man. But, from where?  “Might be, friend. Course, Hardin was in Huntsville for a long spell and I doubt if he had the chance to practice much.”

“How about you, mister?” Clem sneered. “How’s your draw?”

Owens stepped away from the bar, arms akimbo. “You can see for yourself, friend.”

“Clem, shut up,” Gruber said without looking around. “Pull in your horns.”

“Hell,” Clem snorted. “This dude looks like he just stepped off the stage of one of them Buffalo Bill stage shows.”

“For Chris’sakes, Clem, sit the hell down,” Red Dooin implored.

Clem didn’t like it, but something in Red’s voice caught his attention. He glanced toward Red, then looked back at the steely-eyed stranger. He took his seat.

Owens walked to the door, keeping an eye on Clem. “Thanks for the beer, Brigo.”

Por nada.”

 

======

 

The hot sun beat on his shoulders as John Carrier Steele marched down Hell Street with a single purpose in mind.  He saw Cole Farnum going into the Pizen, a pair of Hashknife cowboys heading toward Miss Clara’s and Buford Tucker slumped in a wicker chair outside the marshal’s office.

He saw, but didn’t really process any of it; his thoughts were on Big Bloke’s and the man that had just gone inside. Wes Wheeler was about as good as they came with a pistol and Steele wasn’t keen on facing him. Doubts crept into his mind, lurking menacingly behind every thought; was he still good enough to tackle a man of Wheeler’s caliber? Was this the day when The Widowmaker’s draw would be just a tad slow? His teeth gritted, Steele’s boots sounded loud on the sidewalk.

A woman came from the Don Kirk’s mercantile, carrying a hat box, she paused as if to speak to the marshal, but Steele pushed past her, barely noticing the frown on her face.

There was a narrow alleyway between the restaurant and Kirk’s, and Steele turned into it, going behind the buildings. He checked his guns, loading a sixth bullet to his holstered Colt.

He opened the back door and held a finger to his lips as Nizhoni turned from the stove.

“The man that just came in, where is he sitting?”

“Your table,” she whispered. “Is something wrong, Jack?”

“You just stay in here for a bit.”

The table where Wheeler sat was in the corner, to the right of the kitchen door. Stepping through, Steele turned to face the gunman.

“H’lo, Wes.”

Wheeler looked up from his coffee with weary eyes that studied Steele carefully.

“Heard you were here, Jack.”

“Saw you ride in,” Steele said, his right hand resting on his gunbutt. “Looking for me?”

“Just to talk,” Wheeler replied. “Have a seat, Jack. I just want to talk.”

“What brings you here?” Steele asked, as he pulled out a chair and seated himself.

“Tired. I’m just so … tired. I thought you might understand how it is; moving from place to place, never knowing when some punk kid will try to make his rep by killing you,” Wheeler said glumly. “Lawmen always running me out of town; afraid that I’ll invite trouble.” Wheeler looked at Steele and there was a deep sadness in his eyes. “My nerves are frayed, I can’t hardly sleep no more, Jack. I figure you’re about the only person left that would understand.”

Steele nodded, leaning back in his chair as Nizhoni set a cup of coffee before him.

“Will you gentlemen be having anything else?” she asked.

“I’m fine, ma’am.”

“Thanks, Nizhoni,” Steele added. Turning his attention back to Wheeler, he asked, “What do you want from me, Wes?”

“I want to stop here a spell. I just want to sit in the sun, to eat meals I don’t cook myself.”

“Fair enough,” Steele commented.

“Look, I’m serious about not wanting any trouble, Jack. I’ll check my guns if you want.”

“Better keep them, Wes. There are too many around here that might want to add your scalp to their belt.”

“While I’m here, Jack, I’ll back any play you need me for.”

“Okay, Wes. Try to stay out of trouble.” Steele finished his coffee. “Just so you know, Cole Farnum’s here. And Bet Thayer.”

“I have no beef with either of them, Jack. I just want to live in peace for a bit.”

Steele stood up, “See you around.”

“Jack? Have you ever got a thought in your mind that you just couldn’t shake?”

“I reckon.”

Wheeler looked up, “I have a hunch that this is my last town.”

 

11

Steele walked across Hell Street, heading for his office. He noticed the door was open and figured Buford Tucker was inside, probably sleeping off a drunk. As he thought about it, he suddenly realized that Tucker hadn’t been drinking as much lately. The marshal was taken aback when he entered the office and found Crazy Pete sitting in the chair beside the unlit woodstove.

Buenos tardes, Pedro,” Steele offered.

Pete got to his feet, surprisingly spry for an older man. He handed Steele the tiny diamond.

“This from stage.”

Steele was immediately alert. “The stagecoach? Did something happen?”

“All dead,” the old Navajo replied without emotion. “Bad mans stop stage, kill all. Curly said to give you shining stone.”

“Curly? He’s alive, then?”

Pete shook his head. “Him hurt bad,shot many times. Him no make it, I think.”

Steele stared at the diamond before walking around his desk and sitting heavily in his chair. “If the stage was carrying diamonds, where did they come from?” He thought of Lee Tetlow; who else would be trying to ship diamonds? But where would Tetlow get them from? Glancing up at Pete, Steele asked, “Did Curly say anything else?”

“Him say tell you Goober.”

Gracias, Pete.” Steele gave the old man two dollars. “I appreciate it.”

“I like Curly,” Pete replied. “Him good man. You good man, you catch Goober.”

After the Indian left Steele gave thought to the last word from Curly. Goober? What did that mean? He knew that peanuts were sometimes called goobers, but he couldn’t see how that was a clue. He closed his eyes for a moment and offered a silent prayer for Curly Kissick.

“Guess I’ll have to wait some before we get that drink together, old pard,” he whispered.

Steele crossed the room to the gunrack and took down a Winchester ’73. It was loaded. Closing the office door behind him, he returned to Big Bloke’s to have some food packed, not knowing how long he’d be on the trail.

The restaurant was nearly empty; Cullen Bryant sat alone at a small, square table near the door and a couple of drummers sat together at the table Wheeler had been at earlier.

Big Bloke poked his head out the kitchen door. “Nizhoni’s not here, Jack.”

“I need some grub, Ben. I have to hit the trail for a few days.”

“I’ll throw something together.”

The answer popped into Steele’s head. Gruber! Of course, it had to be, he suddenly realized. He remembered having seen Gruber and Red Dooin talking with Gratton just before the stage arrived.

“What is it, Jack?” Bryant asked.

“The stage was held up, Cull. Everyone was left for dead.”

Bryant set his fork down. “Curly was driving, warn’t he?”

“They shot him.”

“Was it some of them Hashknife boys?”

“I don’t think so,” Steele said. “George Gruber is in these parts.”

“Gruber? He usually plans them better,” Bryant suggested. “There’s little shooting on his jobs.”

“Something must have gone wrong this time, Cull.”

Benny came out of the kitchen with a burlap sack. “There’s some tortillas, a side of salt pork, cans of beans, bacon and a couple of pieces of frybread. I even threw in a handful of bear sign.”

“Thanks, Ben.  Appreciate it.”

Bryant stood up and dropped some coins on the table. “Mighty tasty, Benito.” Picking up his Stetson, he said to Steele, “I reckon I’ll ride with you. I liked Curly myself.”

Steele led the way on Red, his strawberry roan. They followed the same route the stage took; it wasn’t an official road, but had been worn from constant use. It was never advised to leave a well-used trail when crossing the desert; the trail existed because folks found it useable. That usually meant water could be found somewhere along the route, and the established route followed the path most easily travelled.

It was a rare cloudy afternoon in Arizona, with a gentle breeze wafting from the north.

“They’ll likely be long gone,” Bryant said when they had halted to give the horses a breather.

“Could be,” Steele agreed. He took his canteen from the saddlehorn and took a drink. “They might figure they’re safe with no witnesses to identify them.”

“Murderin’ bastards!” Bryant spat in the dust. “Might not be no witnesses, but my bullets can identify them.”

Putting his foot in the stirrup Steele swung back on his roan. “First we got to catch them, Cull.”

The going was slow over the rough, rock-splattered ground, and twice they had to make wide circles to get around large red sandstone monoliths. The brush was coarse and sparse and there were no shade trees. After several hours on the trail they spotted the stagecoach standing in eerie silence.

The coach door was open, with a dead man half leaning out; Curly Kissick sat propped against the front wheel, one hand still clutching the strap of his canteen, his shirt was ripped and ragged, and soaked with blood.

“Damn shame,” Bryant muttered, looking at the horses that had each been shot in the head, still hooked to the stage. “That was some good horseflesh.”

Sitting on his horse Steele’s eyes swept the scene, following the trail Curly had made getting to the rocks and then coming back.

“Curly died game.”

“Too bad he didn’t take none of the durned coyotes with him!”

“They must have shot him first off,” Steele said. “Or else he would have gotten some of them.”

Bryant walked his horse to the stage door and looked inside. “Some drummer. He had no chance. Shot in the head before he got a shot off.”

“What about the others?”

“Others?”

“There were two women on the stage.”

Bryant looked up, his eyes blank. “There’s no sign of any women. Wait! There’s a woman’s purse on the floor.”

“I saw two women board the stage,” Steele said. “We better make tracks, Cull. Maybe—” He let his voice trail off; they both knew it wasn’t going to be pretty when—if—they found the women.

They rode grimly onward, a maddening anger growing within them; women were scarce in the west and therefore prized, and even some of the bloodiest outlaws were known to kill a man who spoke slighting of a good woman. It was unlike George Gruber to allow women to be molested, but perhaps, Steele thought, it indicated that the bandit was losing control over his own gang. The Gruber gang had been active for a nearly twenty years, but natural attrition—not to mention bullets and nooses—had whittled the original followers down considerably. Red Dooin was the only charter member left of Gruber’s original gang.

Tracks led off the trail, up toward a nearby hill, and the two veered their horses in that direction, slowing down and riding warily. Topping a hill they pulled up sharply.

“Rider coming,” Steele said as he reined in his roan. Bryant stopped, too; moving away from the marshal. They slipped the thongs off their pistols.

As the rider drew neared, he slowed his mount, before recognizing the pair and hurrying forward.

“They’re back there,” Perry Owens said. “You don’t want to see it.”

“They were passengers on the stage,” Steele explained. “We think it was the Gruber gang.”

“Gruber?” Owens’ head spun around. “I didn’t recognize him, but that’s who it was. He and his boys were at The Crossing.”

“How many?”

“Five of them,” Owens replied. Then he cursed, “One of them had fresh scratches on his face. They called him Clem.”

“Clem Labine,” Bryant said. “He’s one of the Hashknife outfit. We always heard rumors that some of the newer Hashknife crowd was mixed up with the outlaws.”

“Let’s go. If they left The Crossing, we should still be able to pick up their trail.”

Owens glanced behind him, “I kind of hate to leave the women like that.”

“We have no choice, Perry,” Steele said. “Let’s catch the bastards.”

The three men turned their mounts eastward and pounded hooves toward Wolfe’s Crossing.

 

======

 

Clara Beauregard looked at her son from the corner of her eye; she desperately wanted to reach him, but he always seemed so angry toward her. She glanced around the restaurant, the business was brisk and most tables were occupied.

“I spoke to Hans Wagner today, Wally,” she said casually. “The blacksmith shop is keeping him quite busy these days and he is looking for someone to help out at the livery.”

“I’m sure he’ll find someone,” Wally Dalton remarked sarcastically. “Must be dozens of men hoping for the chance to shovel horseshit.”

“It would be a good job for you, Wally,” she persisted. “A young man needs to start somewhere.”

“I’m not cleaning stalls.”

“It’s just to start. You could work your way up to hostler in no time,” Clara said. She desperately wanted her son to find a meaningful job, instead of spending all his time practicing his fast draw out on the outskirts of town. ”Mr. Wagner is even willing to teach you smithing, if you like.”

“I don’t like, Ma,” Wally snapped.

“You need to find some kind of career,” she protested, knowing she was losing yet another argument with him.

“I’ve got a career all planned.”

“Spending all your time practicing your draw isn’t a profession,” she reminded him. “You can’t make a living doing that.”

“My father did,” Wally insisted defiantly.

“I don’t want to talk about your father—”

“No, you never do,” he accused her. “You try to put him down to me. But I’ve heard other people talk about him, and they still talk of Sam Dalton as a big man. He was respected.”

“He was feared,” Clara said. “That’s not the same as being respected.”

“It’s close enough for me,” Wally replied. “When I walk by, men are going to sit up straight and step aside, just like they did for Pa.”

“Your father … was a gunfighter, a killer. He was always on the run, afraid to stay in one place too long, always looking over his shoulder, afraid someone was sneaking up on him,” Clara said. She reached across the table and touched his hand, but Wally jerked it away. “I want better for you, son. I want you to be more than the son of a gunfighter.”

“It’s better than being the son of a whore.”

She reacted instinctively and slapped his face. “How dare you!”

His eyes went cold and dangerous, through clenched teeth he growled, “Don’t ever do that again, mother.” He stood up, looking down at her.

“You … you’re going to end up just like him,” she said in a whisper. Immediately she felt a pang of regret that she had said that.

“I’m proud to be Sam Dalton’s son. I’d be honored to be just like him.” Wally turned abruptly and stalked out the door. Why, he’d show her, he’d show everybody!

 

12

Seth Gratton was on his way to make a deposit in the Washington Trust Bank and he saw it all. There were several other people on the street, each engaged in their own affairs, and they thought they saw the whole thing; but only Gratton had witnessed the entire sequence.

Wally Dalton burst angrily from Big Bloke’s, clearly pre-occupied, and he inadvertently bumped into a customer on his way to the restaurant, knocking the older man off-balance and in that moment Wally acted from pure instinct, without thinking. His hand swept up and he fired two bullets into the man’s chest. The man had lost his balance and though he managed to draw, it was too slow. He took a step back as Wally’s bullets slammed into him, as he crumpled to the ground his gun went off harmlessly into the ground.

Wally stared down in shock and fear, his pistol still smoking in his hand.

People immediately flocked to the scene; Jeff Bloom rushed from the newspaper office. He looked into the dead eyes of Wes Wheeler.

“What happened,” the editor asked.

“I … I … didn’t—“

Gratton stepped forward. “I saw it all, Bloom. Wally, here, was minding his own business, coming out of the restaurant .Wheeler deliberately picked a fight with him; he bumped into Wally and then went for his gun.  It was sure enough self-defense.”

Bloom looked from Gratton to Wally, then down at Wheeler’s unmoving body. “Self-defense?”

“I’d swear on a stack of bibles,” Gratton said. “Wheeler made the first move and Wally beat him to the draw.”

“Did you hear that?” a cowboy in the crowd shouted to several others arriving on the scene. “Wally Dalton beat Wes Wheeler to the draw!”

“Anyone else see it?”

“Sure, Mr.Bloom,” a man standing among a group of railroad workers spoke up. “It happened just the way Mr. Gratton said. The kid was just leaving the restaurant and that other feller just drew on him for no reason.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Bloom muttered to himself. He moved aside so the undertaker could take a look at the corpse.

“I didn’t know Wally was that fast,” a cowboy said excitedly.

“Come on, boys, drinks on the house,” Gratton called out, grabbing Wally by the arm and steering him toward the Pizen. “Let’s drink to the man who killed Wes Wheeler!”

Wally Dalton’s legs felt wooden and his stomach churned as men crowded around him and patted him on the back and whooped. That wasn’t the way it happened! He wanted to tell them it was his fault; he had bumped into Wheeler and he had reached for his gun first.

“I saw it all,” the railroad man crowed. ‘I never seen anyone draw as fast as Mr. Dalton!”

Mr. Dalton!

Wally liked the sound of that; it was a sign of respect. They would step aside for him now; they would point him out as the man who killed Wes Wheeler.

“I saw Wheeler kill a man in Mobeetie, must’ve been nigh onto ten year ago, and I remember folks saying he was as fast as Billy the Kid,” a cowboy noted.

“And Wally beat Wheeler,” another man said in awe. “That means he’s faster’n the Kid.”

“Faster than Billy the Kid!”

Wally Dalton was on his third shot of whiskey when he stopped trembling inside. It could have happened the way Gratton told it; everything was a blur, there had been no time to think. Wheeler was reaching for his Colt, and he, Wally, had no other choice. Wally Dalton smiled. He had beaten Wes Wheeler to the draw!

As the drinks flowed, the men crowded the bar, talking over each other about gunmen and shootouts.

The cowpoke that mentioned Mobeetie spoke again, “You ever hear how Hardin backed down Wild Bill?”

“T’aint never been a day when Wes Hardin could get the drop on Hickok!” an oldtimer scoffed. “Why, Wild Bill would’ve shot Hardin to pieces!”

“No, I recall hearing something about that,” the bartender, Skinny Munroe, interjected. “Hardin used the road agent’s spin to get the drop on Hickok.”

While the cowboys and railroad men vied for attention, Seth Gratton took a fat cigar out of his vest pocket and—striking the match on the bar—lit it.

Cole Farnum had just entered the saloon and was hearing the news for the first time. He crossed the room and followed Gratton to his office.

“Is that true, Seth? That Dalton whelp killed Wes Wheeler?”

Gratton dropped into the chair behind his desk and took the cigar from his mouth, “It was something like that, Cole. And Dalton sure enough killed Wheeler.”

“I’ve seen that kid practicing out behind the livery. He wasn’t near good enough to take Wheeler,” Farnum said. He crossed to the counter where Gratton kept the liquor and some glasses. “Hell, Wheeler killed at least twenty men, all standing up and facing him.”

“Stranger things have happed,” Gratton said. He chomped on his cigar and leaned back in his chair. Yes, sir, it was all falling into place just as nice as you please.

Now all he had to do was put a bug in the Dalton kid’s ear about adding another big-name gunfighter to the notches on his six-gun.

John Carrier Steele.

 

13

The possemen pushed their horses hard, knowing there would be fresh mounts at Wolfe’s Crossing. If the shooting of Curly Kissick hadn’t been enough, they had found where the robbers had left the trail—and they saw the women, stripped naked and badly abused. They had hurriedly placed the bodies in an arroyo, caving in the bank to cover them and piling rocks on top to keep scavengers away.

They know it had been the Gruber Gang and they were determined to catch up to the outlaws and deal out six-gun justice. Trials took too long, and with local law nearly non-existent, it made no sense to drag out the proceedings, and give some slick-talking lawyer a chance of getting he killers off the hook.

The three hard-bitten riders saw the outcome, could read the tracks and knew, beyond doubt who were responsible. Maybe they didn’t know which hardcase had shot Curly or which ones had abused the women, but they were equally guilty. It was George Gruber’s gang and he was to be held personally responsible; every member of his owlhoot band bore responsibility for the atrocities of the others.

Wolfe’s Crossing came into sight; there was a lone horse standing head down by the hitching post.

“They’re gone,” Perry Owens said. Steele swore viciously. “Gruber and his boys were here. There was Red Dooin and Tex Peacock, and that feller named Clem.”

“I want Clem Labine,” Bryant said. “He walked wide at the Hashknife. I never did cotton to him.”

Walking his horse to the hitch rail, Steele swung down. “Maybe Brigo knows something.”

Brigo was behind the makeshift counter, and a young cowboy was standing before him, a glass of beer in his hand.

“Howdy, Billy,” Bryant said amicably. “Seen Clem around?”

The glass stopped halfway to his lips and Billy Barney slowly set it back on the counter. “What makes you think I know where Clem is? I ain’t his nursemaid.”

Barney glanced around at the hard faces; why, he asked himself, had he stopped in for a beer? He should have kept going and met the gang at the hiding place.

“You ride for Hashknife, don’t you?” Steele asked. The cowboy nodded. “What are you doing so far away from your range?”

“Hunting strays,” Barney said quickly. “Got word some had been seen over this way.”

“We haven’t seen any,” Bryant commented. “Maybe they went back home?”

“Clem hunting them with you?” Steele asked innocently. “He was spotted over this way.”

“Yeah, he was. We were hunting cows together,” Barney said hurriedly. “He probably headed back home.” Barney was nervous and was starting to sweat; he didn’t like the way this talk was headed. He didn’t like it at all. “Well, I better be getting back, too.”

Barney started for the door when Brigo’s voice stopped him.

Senor? You forgot to pay for the cerveza.”

“Oh, yeah,” the cowboy said with a weak smile. He stepped back to the bar and rummaged a hand in his pocket for some change. He brought out a handful of coins—and a small diamond.

“I found one just like that,” Steele commented, as he reached over and picked the gem up.

“You don’t say?”

“It was just a-laying there on the ground. I figure it must have been dropped when the stage was robbed.”

Barney’s jaw dropped. “I … I don’t know nothing about that. I wasn’t there when it was robbed.”

“Where did you say you found that diamond?”

“I just found it, that’s all.” Barney licked his lips nervously. “I best be riding. Clem will be wondering where I’m at.”

Owens had remained by the door, now he spoke for the first time. “Was it your idea to rape and kill hose women?”

As if by signal, Steele and Bryant had moved away from Billy Barney.

“No, it was Tex—” Barney realized that he had just confessed to being in on the robbery. His mind went blank, no thoughts would come to him, Barney felt his hand moving toward his gunbutt. What was he doing? It was three against—

Billy Barney never saw Owens’ hand move but the deadshot lawman drilled him in the heart with his first shot; the second wasn’t needed.

“One down,” Bryant said.

Steele turned to Brigo. “How long ago did the others leave here?”

“Right after he left,” Brigo said, nodding his head toward Owens.

“Probably hightailing it out of the country,” Owens commented.

“Maybe not,” Brigo said. “I think they were waiting for this one. I heard them talking; they had sent this one into Two Guns, for what purpose, I do not know.”

Owens glanced toward Steele, “There have been several stage hold-ups between Two Guns and Flagstaff; I figure someone’s been tipping off the bandits.”

“Been thinking that, too, Perry.”

But who, Steele wondered? Tetlow? That was a possibility; the assayer would probably know when the stage was hauling something valuable.  But why would be steal his own diamonds?

“They might be holed up in the Wilson place,” Bryant said suddenly. “There’s an old adobe over next to Jackrabbit Wash. It’s about five miles from here.”

“Reckon you can take care of this one, Brigo?”

Si. I will bury him.”

Steele tossed the diamond to him. “Here’s for your troubles, amigo!”

Brigo walked to the door and watched as the lawmen mounted up and headed east toward the San Juan River. He had only recognized George Gruber, but his instinct had warned him that they were a bad bunch.

Brigo glanced at the dead man and slowly shook his head, “Looks like young Billy Barney was only kidding himself.”

It was rough country over which they travelled, and after riding at a steady pace for about three-quarters of an hour, they pulled up in a small copse of cottonwoods, with a couple of birch springing up among them.

“How far to the Wilson place?”

“About another thirty, forty minutes, the way we have to follow,” Cullen Bryant answered.

“Be dark by then,” Steele said. “Would give them an edge in slipping away.”

“What you thinkin’, Jack?” Owens asked.

“Settle down here for the night. I figure we can slip up on them just before daybreak. We can take them then.”

After the horses had been picketed and a hatful of fire built so they could make coffee, they settled down for the night.

“Ain’t right,” Bryant said, as he rested on one elbow. “Abusing them ladies like they done!”

Owens was cleaning his guns. He pausedand looked over at Bryant. “Not like Gruber. Someone in his outfit is pure coyote.”

Steele sat by the fire, nursing a cup of coffee. “Curly was a good man. Pulled my bacon out of the fire, by God. It was near Charleston; Apaches kilt my hoss and had me pinned down. They got lead into me, and I reckoned I bought it. Curly was working for McLaury then. He heard the shooting and came a-running just in time.”

“The trouble with the law out here is that the courts are so far away,” Bryant grumbled. “Then the owlhoots get some Fancy Dan lawyer to muck up the works. Next thing you know they’re a-walkin’ away scot-free.

“Hell, ain’t no doubt they done it, Jack. They don’t deserve no even break.” Bryant said. “I say we shoot ‘em down like the mangy dogs they are.”

“We’re the law, Cull. That’s how we got to play it,” Steele replied. The fire hissed as Steele threw the rest of his coffee into the flames. “That don’t mean we pay nursemaid, boys. Way I see it, we nail the first man out the door, so they know we mean business. Then we’ll call out to see if anyone wants to surrender.”

“Doubt any of them will.”

“That’d be the last of their bad decisions, then, Perry. They get one chance, after that we’ll shoot the bejeesus out of them.”

As the others had curled up in their blanket rolls and drifted off to sleep, Steele remained at the fire; his back was to the fire. Only a tinhorn sat staring into the blaze, because when you looked off into the darkness, it took your eyes a few seconds to adjust. A thing like that could mean the difference between life and death.

Approaching the adobe just before daybreak made tactical sense, but it wasn’t the only reason Steele suggested they stop for the night. His eyes …

He shook his head irritably; his eyesight was slowly fading. Night was the worst now, he could barely identify faces more than ten feet away from him. As marshal, most of his work was patrolling during the dark hours.

His hands were a bit shakier; but his gun skill still surpassed most men. The trouble was that the average man wouldn’t be likely to brace him. It would be some hardcase or owlhoot that was equally proficient in handling shooting irons.

Even now, if they knew how far his eyes had deteriorated, the rowdy rannies would be lining up to punch his ticket. Steele thought of Wes Wheeler.

Was Two Guns to be his last town, too?

It was a wild, reckless place that had already seen three dozen men buried on Boot Hill—none had died from natural causes.

Owens and Bryant—Steele glanced toward the sleeping figures—were both better than average with a gun, as was Bet Thayer, for that matter. But all three were firmly on the side of the law; but there were others.

Wheeler? He was fast—some said the fastest—but in their brief encounter Steele had seen weariness etched on his haggard face; Wheeler wanted to sit idly in the sun, to enjoy whatever time he had left.

Seth Gratton had some tough boys hanging around his places, the most dangerous being Cole Farnum. Farnum was no outlaw—at least there were no warrants issued for him—but he was a tough, hard man, the kind that wouldn’t hesitate to shoot it out if he felt it was necessary. He had killed a dozen men, if not more; but no grand jury had brought charges against him. Farnum wasn’t the type to shoot a man in the back; he was good enough that he didn’t need to.

The Wright brothers were a different breed. They had grown up along the notorious Natchez Trace, robbing and murdering the unwary. They wouldn’t hesitate to kill from cover, and neither would Les Compston or Hoss Radbourn.

Steele’s mind drifted and he found himself thinking of the kid he had seen practicing a fast draw out behind the livery. What had his name been? Dalton? Sam Dalton’s boy, someone had said. Steele remembered Sam Dalton as a killer for hire, a man with no scruples. He had killed a few men, but was never a gunfighter. Two of his victims had been so drunk they could barely stand on their own; another was a farmer who probably had never used his gun for anything except hunting game. Then there was the greenhorn kid who wanted to make a name for himself. That was the closest Dalton had come to an honest-to-goodness gunfight; and the kid might have beaten Dalton—if he had only remembered to take the thong off his gun.

Steele emptied the dregs from the coffeepot and put the fire out before rolling up in his own blanket, his saddle acting as a pillow. He desperately needed a deputy. He’d talk with Bryant again. Then he thought of Thayer.

Bet Thayer was good with a gun, very good. And he had sense enough to know when to use a gun and when it wasn’t needed. But he was a gambler and, Steele knew, some people would object to a gambler wearing a badge. Of course the Earps had been gamblers and lawmen; as was Ben Thompson, Bat Masterson and Hickok.

Steele decided then that he would either get help—or get out. His eyes weren’t up to the job facing him. He shivered slightly. Was it from the chill in the air, or was he feeling what Wes Wheeler had expressed?

 

14

Carefully locking the door behind him, Jeff Bloom dropped the key into his coat pocket and jauntily made his way along Hell Street, toward Big Bloke’s restaurant. There were a lot of horses tied to the hitch rails and a half dozen wagons and carriages, also.

Three cowboys walked their horses toward the south side of the Twin Arrows Creek and Bloom noticed the Hashknife brands. He had figured that some of that crowd would be in town tonight, especially with the much-anticipated show at the Emporium.

Pretty as she was, Dixie Chalice had been much talked about ever since she first arrived in Two Guns; when she moved into Miss Clara’s it was assumed that she was another working girl and potential clients flocked to the “school” to sample the goods. Clara Beauregard, however, made it clear that Dixie was a singer, and not one of the regular girls.

The Southern belle had spent her time practicing her craft and preparing for her Two Guns’ debut.

The dining room was near capacity; Angelina, a Mexican waitress, was helping out, along with Nizhoni.

“Find a seat, Jeff,” Nizhoni said as she hurried toward the kitchen after delivering an order to a table near the door.

Bloom spotted Bet Thayer sitting alone and crossed the room to his table. “Mind if I join you?”

“Be a pleasure,” Bet smiled. “What’s in the news these days, Jeff?”

“Got a wire from Flagstaff, the stage never arrived,” Bloom said as he dropped into a chair.

“That’s not like Curly. He always prided himself on being on time.”

“He’s way overdue, Bet. I think something bad has happened.”

“What does Steele say?”

“He doesn’t seem to be around town,” Bloom replied. There was an awkward pause before the newspaperman continued, “You don’t think … I mean would Steele—”

“Rob the stage?”

Bloom nodded, “Just wondering.”

“No, not a chance. Steele’s done his share of stupid things—we all have in our time—but he wouldn’t do that,” Thayer asserted. “He’d never betray a trust.”

“I know, Bet. I was just thinking about Henry Plummer.”

Thayer waved a hand dismissively, “Steele’s not that kind. No, if he’s left town, it’s for some other reason. Maybe he got word of the hold-up and took out after the bandits.”

“He doesn’t have any jurisdiction outside of town.”

“That wouldn’t stop him none,” Bet replied. “He and Curly were close, if he thought Curly was in a jam, he’d ride like hell to get there. One thing about Steele, he never let a friend down.”

Talk paused as Nizhoni set a plate of tortillas on the table, followed by two plates of beef and frijoles.

“I set aside a couple of pieces of pie for you boys,” she whispered. “I made a half dozen today, but we’re almost out already.”

“Obliged, Nizhoni,” Bet smiled.

“Be back with coffee,” she said, hurrying toward the kitchen.

Bloom began slicing off a bite of beef. “Speaking of friends, Bet. What did happen in Pie Town?”

“That was an accident, Jeff; a tragic accident. But Jack’s always blamed himself. Jim Michaels was his friend; they’d worked together in Dodge and Laredo. But Pie Town was something else. It was completely lawless when they called for Steele.

“As you can imagine, whenever law and order comes to town, there are always some who don’t want it to stay. Burwick was the leader of the rough element in Pie Town and he wanted to be rid of Steele. He’d imported a couple of gunhands, but neither was up to the task.

“The word was out that he’d sent for Lassiter, that mysterious rider from the purple sage country. Lassiter was a mystery, nobody knew whether he’d take the job or not. No one could recall him breaking the law, but that didn’t stop the talk.”

“The talk?” Bloom asked.

“You know how it is. People like to talk, to wonder about things—like who would win if Steele and Lassiter shot it out.”

“No doubt Steele heard all the talk.”

Bet nodded. “Everyone was on edge. One night trouble broke out in front of Burwick’s place, shots were fired. Steele hurried to the scene and found Burwick with a smoking gun in his hand, and he had three or four gunmen beside him. Jack asked Burwick why he had been shooting and Burwick got ugly. Maybe it was the whiskey talking, or maybe he figured he had the edge since he already had a gun in his hand.

“Whatever the reason, Burwick started to raise his gun and Steele nailed him—two shots in the belly. Steele’s draw was so fast that none of the others even had a chance to move.”

Thayer paused and took a drink of his coffee. “That’s when he heard footsteps running up behind him. All the Lassiter talk had him on edge and he turned around and fired when he saw a gun in the man’s hand. Too late he realized it was his deputy.”

“But how?” Bloom wondered. “How could he not suspect that it might be his deputy coming to his aid?”

“Michaels had left town earlier that day to deliver some warrants and wasn’t supposed to be back until the next day,” Thayer explained. “The trouble was that Jim’s horse came up lame a few miles outside of town so he’d had to walk back to Pie Town. He got there just in time to hear the shooting; of course he knew all about the Lassiter talk so he came running.”

“Damn,” Bloom said, slowly shaking his head. “It was an accident, Bet. It could have happened to anyone.”

“Jack blamed himself; he turned in his badge and spent four, five years inside a bottle trying to forget it.”

“You never forget a thing like that.”

“No, no you don’t,” Bet agreed. The gambler stared into his coffee cup for a moment. “My guess is that’s why he took this job. He feels he needs to atone for what he did.”

“I wondered why he came here,” Bloom admitted. “He’s kind of old to be taming Wild West towns. I mean Virgirl Earp wore a badge out in California, and Tilghman in Oklahoma, but neither of them had to deal with anything like Two Guns.”

“People forget what a good lawman he was; they only remember that he was the feller who killed his own deputy,” Thayer said. “I think Steele sees this is the only way he can salvage his reputation.”

It was the Mexican girl who cleaned their plates from the table.

“Well, if you do see him, tell him I know what this is,” Bloom said, taking a small diamond from his pocket.

“Oh, you have one of those, too?” Nizhoni said excitedly, as she set two pieces of apple pie on the table.

Bloom looked up, surprised. “You have one of these, too?”

“Not any more. I gave it to Benny,” she said. “He keeps it in the pouch he wears around his neck for good luck.”

“Where did you get it?”

“Same as you, I guess—Old Pete Nataani.”

Crazy Pete! Bloom bolted upright in his chair; of course it made sense now, like everyone else in town, the newspaperman had seen Pete leading his mules into town and selling small slabs of broken rock to the assayer, Tetlow.

“What is it, Jeff?” Thayer asked.

Hastily, Bloom shared his thoughts.

“So there are lots of these?” Thayer whistled, as he reached over and picked up the small diamond. “Just lying around the desert, waiting to be picked up?”

“Before I came here, I operated a paper in Creed; I became friends with an oldtimer named Joe Bucks—“Bet a Million” Bucks, they called him. He was a prospector who made a fortune and lost it—twice,” Bloom explained. “Bucks knew more about prospecting and minerals than anyone I ever met. He told me once about finding diamonds embedded in rock near where an ancient meteor collision had left a huge crater.”

Bet Thayer leaned back in his chair and tilted his head back. “A place like Coon’s Hole?”

“That’s right, Bet. Some are starting to call it Meteor Crater or something like it, now,” Bloom said. “Somehow the meteor’s impact crystallized some of the surrounding rock, creating tiny diamonds buried inside them.”

“Sounds crazy,” Nizhoni said, as she left to wait on another customer.

“I does sound crazy, Jeff. I mean thousands of folks have explored Coon’s Hole. If there were diamonds strewn about someone would have claimed them.”

“I think when the meteor hit, it sent rock fragments flying in all directions for miles and miles,” Bloom said. “I think Crazy Pete has located a place with such crystallized rocks lying around.”

“You just might be on to something,” Thayer nodded. “I always wondered why Tetlow was buying useless rocks. Do you suppose he knows where the cache is?”

Bloom shook his head, “I doubt it. If he did, he’d have gone out there and gathered them all up. My guess is that only Pete knows—and he isn’t talking.”

Thayer took a peek at his pocket watch. “I best be going, Jeff. You going over to the Emporium?”

“You bet! If this girl can sing as good as she looks, we’re in for quite the show!”

 

======

 

“Slow tonight, Boss,” said Skinny, as he set a cup of coffee on the bar.

Seth Gratton grunted. “What I expected, Munroe. Everyone’s over to the Emporium, waiting for that Dixie songbird. The crowd will drift in later tonight.”

“I heard McGinnity offered her $250 a month to sing exclusively at the Providence.”

“You don’t say? He must figure she’ll pull in the customers,” Gratton mused. His eyes swept the room before adding, “Looks like he’s right.”

Gratton had contented himself with operating small dives, built only to separate the fools from their money. They offered little amenities, a handful of saloon girls paid to circulate among the crowd and get the men to keep buying drinks, a tinny piano player who made up in enthusiasm what he lacked in talent and an assortment of table games, roulette wheels and poker games—all carefully crafted to guarantee that the house always had an edge.

But the Golden Nugget was to open soon and with it, Gratton was making a play for the high rollers, the big cattlemen and the well-heeled businessmen that passed through Two Guns.

Having Dixie Chalice as his star attraction would bring in the crowds from near and far. Yes, she would. Gratton hadn’t really considered it before, but now—seeing how dead most of the establishments south of the creek seemed to be—his mind worried at the idea. He had to have Dixie working at the Golden Nugget.

If McGinnity had offered her $250 a month, she had to be worth more—much more—Gratton figured. McGinnity was known to be tight-fisted. He would be at the show tonight, and he’d make her an offer she couldn’t refuse. Gratton smiled to himself. He’d have her alright, and not just as a singer.

“You look in a pleasant mood, Seth.”

Preoccupied with his own thoughts, Gratton hadn’t even noticed Cole Farnum walking up to him. He didn’t like the familiar way Farnum had about him, speaking to him almost as if they were equals!

“Find out anything?”

“Nothing,” Farnum said. He set a hand on the bar to catch the beer mug Skinny slid down to him. “Steele’s not in town; I’m pretty sure of that.”

“Any talk about the stage?”

“Not a word. I doubt Steele even knows about it yet.”

“We better assume he does,” Gratton said. “Is there anything that ties us to it?”

Farnum shook his head. “I met that Hashknife kid outside of town, like we arranged. He handed over your share and rode back out.”

“No one saw you together?”

“Not a soul. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“I hope you’re right.” Gratton’s eyes went to a table in a far corner, where the Wright brothers sat, hunched over a bottle. Jed Wright had been nursing a grudge ever since he’d been thrown out of Miss Clara’s and arrested by Steele. “Wonder what they’re up to, Cole?”

Farnum followed Gratton’s eyes and watched the Wrights for a few moments. “Complaining about something, same as always.”

“Damn fools,” Gratton said. He took a swallow of coffee and glanced their way again. “Between them they ain’t got the brains of a jaybird.”

“Speaking of the brains of a jaybird, I’m getting tired of that whippersnapper strutting around like he’s chief of the Washoe.”

“Forget it, Cole. He might be useful, if Steele shows up back here.”

“I can handle Steele.”

“You couldn’t get the drop on him, like Dalton could. Steele’s always watching you,” Gratton said. “But that Dalton kid could walk right up to him without Steele suspecting a thing. Did you drop a hint to him about killing the marshal?”

“I mentioned it, like you said, and Dalton said if I thought Steele needed killing, then why don’t I do it myself.”

Gratton chuckled. “He sure is a cocky bastard.”

“Too damned cocky,” Farnum growled. “I’d like to box his ears.”

“Just hold on, Cole. I might have use for him.”

Hoss Radbourn walked through the door then and, spotting Gratton and Farnum, made a beeline toward them.

“Well, Steele definitely left town, Boss. That hostler had a hard head, but after I softened him up a mite he talked quick enough.”

“Did he know where Steele went?”

“Sure didn’t,” Radbourn said. “But I found out something else. Cullen Bryant went with him.”

Now what the hell did that mean, Gratton wondered? Steele and Bryant? They had to be riding somewhere, but where? And why? Word of the stagecoach robbery hadn’t reached town yet, so that couldn’t be it.

Or could it?

And so what if they did know? George Gruber was long gone from the area by now. Farnum was certain that no one had seen him meeting with Billy Barney, so there was nothing to tie him in with the theft, Gratton told himself.

Radbourn moved down the bar to get a beer, and then he joined the Wright brothers.

“It’s almost time for the show to start at the Emporium,” Gratton said, glancing at his timepiece.

“One thing before you go, Seth.” Farnum lowered his voice, “Barney said there was trouble with the hold-up.”

“Trouble? What kind of trouble?”

 

15

It was still dark, and the old Wilson house stood silently and ominously against the mesa. Morning came suddenly in the desert and there was already a faint softening to the midnight sky. Built against the mesa, the adobe house offered only three sides where escape attempts might be made.

Commodore Perry Owens was in an arroyo running to the left of the house; it offered him some movement while remaining undercover. A deadshot, Owens could cover the one, small window on the west side of the house, while helping Steele to keep an eye on the front door. A corral was on the east side, with a lean-to providing some cover for the horses; there were no windows on that side, but the wall had partly crumbled so it was a possible escape route. But there was no cover on the east side unless one could reach the lean-to. Cullen Bryant settled down with a good view of the house, keeping his Winchester close to hand. He also had a double-barreled shotgun with him.

There were five horses in the corral, which meant five desperadoes inside. There had been five stage robbers, and one of them—Billy Barney—was dead, so it likely meant that there was one extra man inside, one that had no connection to the hold-up.

Bryant had noted that before the lawmen had taken up their respective spots.

“His bad luck,” Steele replied. “You lie down with dogs, you share their fleas.”

The sun jumped over the horizon, chasing the night away. There was good visibility and nothing to do but wait. The first fingers of sunlight came through the fallen section of the roof on the east side of the one-room house and gently caressed George Gruber’s eyelids. The outlaw leader opened his eyes and lay still, listening for any unusual sounds. That was a habit for night-riding men, or anyone interested in remaining alive while crossing dangerous country.

Though the sun was rising, there was still a noticeable chill in the air. Gruber stepped into his jeans and stamped his feet into his boots; there were a handful of red coals among the ashes and Gruber stirred them up while adding some slivers of wood to build the fire back up. When the young flames grabbed hungrily at the fresh wood, Gruber carefully brought the blaze to life. He pushed the coffeepot nearer the fire.

Red Dooin sat up, rubbing the remnants of sleep from his eyes.

Gruber glanced at him. “Too bad the kid ain’t back yet. He’s a fine cook.”

Dooin reached for his hat first, before putting his pants on. “He should be back by now, George. You think he run into trouble?”

“Not likely,” Gruber replied. He crossed to the front window and peeked out. The yard was quiet. “He probably didn’t know what to do when he reached The Crossing and we weren’t there, so he just bedded down there.”

“Maybe I best take a ride back there.”

Gruber indicated Clem Labine. “I’ll send him. If Steele and Owens are still poking around, it would seem natural for the two Hashknife boys to meet up.”

“You sure about that?” Red asked, rubbing his chin. “Clem’s been on the prod lately.”

Gruber smiled ruefully, “He better pull in his horns when he gets to The Crossing, Brigo is nobody to fool with. He’s an army all by himself, Red.”

“You said you knew Brigo’s pa?”

“That was back in the Live Oak country, in Texas. I think his pa was half-Mex and half-Yaqui, or something like that. He worked with a woman named Riordan back then. He was a tough hombre, that’s for sure.”

“Wasn’t he part of the Kilkenny gang?”

“Kilkenny gang?” Gruber chuckled as he began slicing bacon into a fry pan. “Kilkenny didn’t need no gang, Red. He was a gang, why him and Brigo were an army by themselves.”

Labine yawned loudly and stretched before sitting up. “Coffee smells good,” he said sullenly.

“After breakfast, why don’t you take a ride back to The Crossing and see what’s keeping the kid.”

“Aw, Billy can take care of himself.”

“We can’t pull out until he brings back word from Gratton,” Gruber said. “The sooner he gets here, the sooner we can split up the money and light a shuck out of here!”

“Oh, alright,” Labine grumbled. “I’ll go.” He swung his gunbelt around his hips. “What about him?”

Gruber looked toward the sleeping figure in the corner; he had been holed up at the Wilson cabin before they arrived.

“He’s minding his own business.”

“I don’t like it,” Labine grumbled. “He’s seen us. He could identify us.”

“You’re too suspicious, Clem,” Dooin added. “Hell, he’s on the dodge, just like us.”

“We know nothing about him.”

Gruber poured himself a cup of coffee. “You just worry about finding the kid, Labine.”

“I got to take a leak,” Labine said. “I’ll saddle up while I’m out there. Save me some java.”

He opened the door and stepped out. He turned his head, as if to say something, when a rifle barked and the side of Labine’s head shattered. He fell, his bulky body blocking the doorway.

The echo of the rifle had barely died away before Gruber and Red had grabbed their pistols. Tex and the stranger had also reacted quickly to the blast.

The stranger, Swingle, peeked toward the horses; their heads were up looking toward the front of the house.

“We might be able to make a break for it,” he said over his shoulder.

“We’d have to cover twenty feet of open ground just to reach the horses,” Dooin spat. “I don’t like it!”

“And whoever’s out there, ain’t playing games,” Tex Peacock said.

“The question is; who is out there?”

As if in answer, a voice called out.

“Gruber! This is Steele! Throw out your guns and come out with your hands up!”

“You killed one of my men, Steele,” Gruber shouted in reply. “You never gave him a chance!”

“He had about as much chance as those women on the stage did,” Steele said. “This is your only warning, Gruber. Come out now, or you’ll be carried out!”

“Maybe he’s alone,” Tex said. “If we made a run for it, he couldn’t get us all.”

“You want to be the one he gets, Tex?” Dooin asked.

“Steele! This is Swingle! I had nothing to do with any stage hold-up! I want to come out!”

A different voice answered, “Come on out, Kid!”

“That wasn’t Steele’s voice,” Dooin whispered. “Sounded like it came from the arroyo.”

“Well, he ain’t alone,” Tex said. “Wonder who’s with him.”

“Owens,” Swingle said. “He’s hunting me.”

“Steele! It was Labine who molested those women,” Gruber called out. “I’m being straight with you. You already killed him. We’ll ride out and never come back this way.”

“I want the man who shot Curly!”

Tex tightened the grip on his six-gun and stared at Gruber through narrowed eyes.

“Labine, he done that, too, Steele,” Gruber replied.  “I tried to stop him.”

“Too thin, Gruber. Last chance; come out reaching for the sky—or fill your hands.”

While the gang’s attention was out front, Kid Swingle shimmied his small frame over the broken section of wall and ran for the horses. He was half way to the corral when Cullen Bryant shot him with the Winchester.

That led to an explosion of gunfire and bullets ricocheted around the tiny room, one tearing a gash in Gruber’s side.

“Looks bad,” Dooin remarked as he worked swiftly to stop the bleeding. “I don’t think we’re a-gettin’ out of this one, George.”

“Damn it, Red. I’m sorry,” Gruber groaned as he struggled to sit up, back to the wall. “I knew it was going to go bad for us when Curly was killed.”

Red Dooin stood up and turned to find himself staring down the muzzle of Tex’s pistol.

“What is this, Peacock?”

“We’re trapped in here, Red. I don’t figure to end up on the wrong side of the dirt.”

“Our only chance is to hold them off until dark,” Red suggested. “Maybe we can make a break then.”

“We’d never last until nightfall—not with Steele and Owens out there,” Tex said. “No, I got me a better idea, Red. Now, why don’t you drop that hogleg.”

Red Dooin had his gun in his hand, but he’d have to swing it up, aim and fire, and Tex already had the drop on him. He was never a quick-draw and now Dooin knew he had no choice. He let his pistol drop.

“We got to stick together, Tex,” he pleaded.

“Move over there,” Tex ordered, gesturing with his gun. “We’ll make our break soon enough.”

Tex emptied the saddlebag with the money on the table. He stuffed packets of bills inside his shirt. Lastly, he picked up the small sack of diamonds and stuffed them into his pocket. He tossed the empty saddlebag to Dooin.

“Put that over your shoulder, Red. They’ll think you got the money and cut loose your way,” Tex said. “While they’re a-blasting you it’ll be my chance to get away.”

“You’re mad, Tex. This will never work,” Dooin pleaded. “It’s suicide.”

Tex waggled his gun toward the door.”Let’s go, Red. Like the man said, it’s now or never.”

Tex shoved Red Dooin out the door and started to follow him.

“Tex?”

The Texan paused for a split second and George Gruber shot him through the side. Tex returned fire, stepped backwards out the door as the lawmen opened up from all sides.

Tex managed three steps before falling to his knees. As he struggled to rise he saw Dooin’s bullet-riddled body on the ground. He still had a chance, if only he could reach the horses. He felt himself moving, moving … funny how fast he ground seemed to be coming up for him. Tex struggled to regain his feet, and he began to laugh; he had the money and the gems … he had it all!

Rolling the outlaw over with his toe, Steele bent down and picked up the sack of jewels. “This one’s for you, Curly. You can rest easy now, knowing you never lost any freight.”

Owens and Bryant had converged on the house and found Gruber slumped on his side. He was barely breathing.

 

16

There had been a lot of excitement in the short time that Marshal Steele was away: two cowboys got into an argument over a girl at one of the sporting dens and had shot each other, but both were expected to recover; an altercation at the Bucket O’ Blood led to a stabbing, but the victim, a railroad man, wasn’t hurt bad and refused to press charges; and there had been trouble in front of Big Bloke’s.

A Hashknife cowboy had made uncouth remarks to Nizhoni and compounded his mistake by refusing to leave the premises when Benito Manuelito asked him to; the loose-tongued rowdy ended up leaving the restaurant the hard way, and leaving several teeth behind. But, unfortunately, the cowpoke was not cured of his stupidity and he went and fetched a pistol; that’s when Cole Farnum stepped up to defend the unarmed Manuelitos.

“Maybe Cole ain’t all bad,” Steele sighed. “Or maybe he just appreciates good cooking.”

It was two other killings mentioned in the Two Guns Gazette that held Steele’s attention. Apparently Wong Tang, the bouncer at Miss Clara’s, had been ambushed in the dark and shot down; there were no witnesses. The story was brief, explaining that Tang’s body had been found by Miss Clara herself, the day after the big show at the Emporium. Steele decided he’d better have a talk with Clara.

Like everyone else in Two Guns, Steele was interested in the story of the shoot-out between Wes Wheeler and Andy Dalton. He’d secretly watched the Dalton boy practicing his draw and couldn’t believe the kid had gotten the better of a wily, veteran like Wheeler. Still, the saying was that practice made perfect.

Still, strange things can happen in gunfights. He thought of that time in El Paso when tiny gambler Luke Short used up the luck of a lifetime in killing notorious gunfighter Longhair Jim Courtwright. Courtwright was, by far, the more skilled shootist and the faster on the draw, but that day he got the “Short” end of things.

First, Courtwright’s gun got tangled up in his watch chain, slowing him just enough for Short to get the first shot off. They were standing only two or three feet apart, but Luke Short missed—and it was the luckiest missed shot in the West! Luke Short’s bullet tore off Courtwright’s right thumb, so the gunman couldn’t cock his pistol! Ever game, the hearty gunman began the border shift—tossing the gun from one hand into the other—but never finished as Short took his time, aimed calmly and shot Courtwright down.

Getting up, Steele walked to the door and peered out; everyone on the street was going about the usual business, a couple of hands from one of the nearby ranches were loading a wagon in front of Kirk’s Mercantile, a couple of ladies were chatting away on the walk in front of the newspaper office and a railroad man was tying a shovel into place on his packhorse.

A shovel?

“Well, why not?”Steele chuckled. The large-type headline on the front page of The Two Guns Gazette proclaimed: “Diamond Mines!”

That would have every would-be prospector and adventurer flocking into the desert in search of untold riches. It would also bring every pickpocket, thief and highwayman rushing into town to fleece the sheep.

If Two Guns was hard to control before, it would be near impossible now. He needed a deputy, two or three even. Cullen Bryant turned him down again, but did warn that the killing of the two Hashknife robbers could bring trouble to Two Guns.

“Some of those hombres are rougher’n a cob,” Bryant said. “And they’ll want blood for blood.”

The way Farnum had stepped in to protect an unarmed man, well, maybe that showed a side to the gunman that most rarely saw. Maybe …

He shook his head. He wasn’t as young as he used to be, and he did need to catch up on his sleep. The past couple of long days in the saddle had sapped his energy.

Stepping out onto the boardwalk, he closed the office door behind him. He glanced north down Hell Street toward Doc Magee’s house. The doctor was probably still doing his best to save George Gruber’s life, though he had already confided in Steele that it looked all but hopeless. A ricochet off the wall had torn a wicked gash on one side and Tex Peacock’s shot had taken the bandit in the belly.

Steele wanted to talk to Gruber when he was coherent, maybe make a deal. There had been too many successful hold-ups for it to be coincidence; Gruber had a contact in town that was tipping him off when there was something valuable on the stage. Maybe he could get Gruber to talk.

 

======

 

“What if Gruber talked?

Seth Gratton, who prided himself on always appearing to be in control, was shaking inside. Gruber had always made clean hold-ups and swift getaways, and the idea of his being caught had never entered the saloon owner’s mind. That was what had led Gratton to work with Gruber; the bandit was a meticulous planner and was careful to obey the unwritten rules of the West.

But this time it had gone horribly wrong; first with the killing of Curly Kissick and then the rape and murder of two women. What had gotten into Gruber, Gratton wondered? The old robber certainly knew better than that.

A shotgun rider was fair game, he took the job knowing he’d be targeted and accepted the challenge, but the driver was helpless, needing both hands on the lines to handle the team. Folks in the West looked down on bandits who shot down a stage driver. And Curly was popular; there were dozens of men on the street this very minute that would help to hang Gratton if they knew of his involvement.

They all knew that a badly wounded Gruber had been brought back to town, and was at Doc Magee’s now. Most folks in town were pulling for Gruber to recover—so they could hang him.

No, there was only one way to make sure he was safe, Gratton decided. Gruber would have to be removed from the picture. The outlaw’s use was at an end in any case; even if Gruber recovered he’d either be hung or face the rest of his life in prison, Gratton reasoned.

There was a good crowd in the Pizen this night, but scanning the room, Gratton did not see the Wright brothers. Cole Farnum was playing cards, but he’d never go for murdering a sick man in his hospital bed, Gratton knew. Radbourn was leaning against the bar, a beer in his hand, and chatting with Skinny.

“Howdy, Mr. Gratton,” Radbourn exclaimed. He wanted to be the boss’ right-hand man, but usually felt that Gratton had little use for him; so, when Gratton approached him, Radbourn perked up.

“Seen Jed Wright around?”

“Jed?” Radbourn couldn’t hide the disappointment in his voice. “He and Ned left town right after … um, well—”

“Right after what?” Gratton asked, his eyes flaring angrily. He did not like it when his men acted without his approval.

Radbourn gulped. “After they kilt that Chinaman.”

“I see.” Gratton had thought the Wrights were involved when he first heard about the killing of Wong Tang. That Jed Wright was a good one for holding a grudge. “I don’t suppose you could get a message to them, Hoss?”

Radbourn straightened up, “As a matter of fact, I just might be able to, Mr. Gratton.”

 

17

 

The wicked, wicked dreams of life and death, the all-too-real cries of anguish and agony slashed through the mind of John Carrier Steele; he wrestled violently with his blankets, supposing them to be demons determined to drag him down … down … down.

He bolted upright in his bed, head spinning this way and that, certain he’d find another unworldly shadow stretching blood-dripping claws to wrest his soul away.

Swinging his feet to the floor, Steele sat on the edge of the bed, cupping his head in his hands, as his pulse fought to regain normalcy. The sweat dripped unceasingly from his rigid body and only slowly did he relax, regain his senses.

The dreams had always been violent, like the life he led, but now they seemed even more horrific as each time the image of that last antagonist eluded him. He always seemed to catch the barest glimpse—a jawline, part of an eye staring coldly at him—but never quite enough to see who it was. The other ghostly images changed from time to time, always of men he had killed. Sometimes he saw the face of someone he had forgotten he had slain.

How many were there? Thirty? Forty? Surely less than fifty, he told himself.

Making his way to the washbasin on the nightstand, Steele splashed tepid water on his face and tried to see his reflection in the flyspecked mirror. But it had grown dark since he had gone to bed and, with no lamp lit, he could only see a dark, hulking shadow.

“I can’t take much more of this,” he muttered.

He lit the lamp at his bedside, turning the wick low. He shook out his boots—a habit that western men quickly acquired, for fear of a finding a visiting scorpion, spider or snake cuddled up inside—and then pulled them on. Glancing at his pocketwatch he noted that it was just past 10 p.m., prime time along Hell Street’s south end.

Steele descended the stairs, returning the desk clerk’s nod, as he left the Arizona House. He immediately stepped to the side, giving his eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness.

There was a dark figure on the ground, lying half in Twin Arrows Creek. Steele rushed to help the man, knowing who it was before he reached the prone body. The smell of cheap liquor was overpowering.

“Come on, Buford,” he said softly as he shook the sleeping man. “Time to wake up now.”

Buford Tucker came awake with a snort, “W … who is it?” he asked, seeing only a dark lump through his hazy vision.

“It’s Steele. Now, get up and let’s get you someplace warm.”

With Steele’s aid, Tucker managed to regain his footing and was half-led, half-carried to the marshal’s office.

“What happened, Buford? You were doing so well,” Steele said as he helped the town drunk to stretch out on the cot in one two empty jail cells.

“Not again,” Tucker groaned pitifully as he pawed at Steele’s arm. “I can’t do it again … I just can’t.”

“You were doing good, Buford,” Steele replied. He spread a thin blanket over Tucker. “This is just a setback. Tomorrow’s a new day, and you’ll be able to put this behind you. It’s not easy giving up liquor. Believe me, I know—”

Steele’s words were interrupted by a gentle snore.

The lawman built a fire in the woodstove to help take some of the chill out of the room. He felt bad for Buford Tucker, who had gone nearly three weeks without a drink. What had caused him to fall off the wagon? Or was the temptation just too overpowering?

It wasn’t an easy thing to end a bad habit, and Steele had fought his own demons in that arena. After the shooting of Jim Michaels, he had put a bottle to his head and pulled the trigger. He had ridden off with no destination in mind, losing himself in whiskey and rye, wherever he could find it. Never a drinking man, Steele thought it tasted like mule piss, at first; but he liked the way the hooch chased away the feelings of guilt and shame, and of loneliness.

Always there was loneliness.

What right did he have to expect anything more? He had sent dozens of men to early graves, leaving their loved ones lonely, that’s why they mocked him as “The Widowmaker.”

One thing he could control was not to leave another widow when his time came. There had been women off and on; he had lived with several for short periods, nothing serious, each knowing it was temporary.

But Clara Beauregard had been different and, right from the start, he felt it. Sure, she had been a whore when they first met, but women were scarce in the West, and professions for the fairer sex were just about limited to schoolmarm or soiled dove, and there was no question as to which one paid better.

Clara’s family fell on hard times after the war; she came west with a brother, who drowned crossing a river in Arkansas and a cousin who died when a tree he was chopping fell on him. Her father had been killed by rustlers a year later. Her mother had come west then, with young Gertie. Mrs. Beauregard had been forced to remarry in order to put food on the table for her children.

Clara’s stepfather was often drunk, seldom held a job longer than a month and was too free with his marital affections … she ran away when she fifteen. Clara had tried to tell her mother what was going on behind her back—or was it?—but her mother accused Clara of trying to steal her husband. Clara was young and pretty—and a poor judge of men. She fell in love with Mooney Collins—called Mooney on account of doing most of his work under the moonlight, with other men’s cattle. Mooney was abusive, as Clara soon found out. When things weren’t going well, or he just felt like it, he’d slap her around. She vowed to leave him after he broke her arm, but he pled with her, with tears in his eyes, and promised he’d never treat her that way again.

Clara refused to press charges and Mooney was released. The married couple found bliss for four days, until Mooney got ahold of some cheap rotgut and knocked her stem over teakettle round their rented shack.

Shortly after that he had gone on a night raid and came back tied over his horse’s back, leaving his widow with little more than the clothes on her back.

She caught the eye of a Mississippi riverboat gambler on his way to try his luck at the poker tables of Abilene; Louis LaRue strongly suggested that they had a future together and she went along with him. That future ended after he won a huge pot at the Bull’s Head and wisely left town before an irate Ben Thompson could return with his gun. There had been some question as to the legitimacy of the hand LaRue laid on the table.

LaRue left Abilene with almost $8,000—and with Bessie Eaton. He had promised her a future, too.

Left stranded, broke and homeless, Clara soon found a place with Big Annie’s girls. Annie Stokely operated an upscale brothel and didn’t need to employ a bouncer, as she wasn’t called Big Annie for nothing. She was six-feet tall and weighed just north of two hundred pounds. She wouldn’t back down from trouble and physically removed more than one unruly drunk from her establishment. Big Annie was also shrewd; she took a liking to Clara. Hearing the talk on the streets, Annie knew some of Clara’s story and was moved by the young girl’s pluck and determination to survive—and prosper. She took Clara under wing and taught her everything she needed to know to operate her own house one day.

It was in Abilene, the summer of ’71, where Steele first saw her. He had come up the trail from Texas with the Clements herd and was enjoying the sights and sounds of the biggest town he’d ever seen.

She was carrying several boxes and coming out of the haberdashery when Steele accidently bumped into her; he hurriedly retrieved her fallen boxes, all the while apologizing profusely for his clumsiness.

He was obviously shy around women and Clara was immediately taken with him; and, for his part, when he stood up and looked into her eyes something turned over inside his heart.

“Ma’am,” he said, “if’n I go blind tomorrow, least I done seen the purtiest girl in the world.”

“Thank you,” Clara replied with a sweet smile.

“I’d be obliged to carry these packages home for you, ma’am.”

“I can manage,” Clara said hastily, not wanting him to know she stayed at Big Annie’s. “Thank you for being so gallant, Mister …?”

“Jack, ma’am. I mean, not Mr. Jack—just Jack—um, Jack Steele. You can call me Jack, I mean.”

“I’m Clara Beauregard,” she introduced herself by her maiden name. She rose on her tiptoes and gave him a swift peck on the cheek. “Why, Mr. Jack, you’re turning redder than an Indian!”

Steele stood on the boardwalk blushing, unsure of what to do. “Uh, thank you, ma’am,” he said as he hurried away. He missed his first step off the sidewalk and, losing his balance, fell into a water trough, much to the delight of a dozen onlookers—including Marshal Wild Bill Hickok.

“Well, little lady,” Hickok said, adding a wink, “I do declare that our young Galahad has definitely fallen for you!”

Steele took another look at Tucker, who was resting comfortably, and then went back on the street. He needed a deputy and he had made up his mind.

 

18

Steele went slowly down the few steps before the whitewashed two-story house, with narrow Greek columns guarding the front porch. Out on the rockstrewn lawn he turned and glanced up at the second-floor corner window where the teasing flickers of soft candlelight bade him goodbye.

He had gone to see Miss Clara to try to learn something more about the killing of Wong Tang, but she had nothing no information. Like many people in town that night Clara had gone to the Emporium to hear Dixie Chalice sing. The house was open, but only had a couple of callers; Tang had been left in charge, as was usual when Clara was out.

They had a couple of drinks while swapping yarns about Tang, then a few more drinks before retiring to her plush bedroom with four-poster bed and a thick Persian rug on the floor.

The drinks helped them forget their inhibitions and they had enjoyed each other’s company as if it were fifteen years earlier.

Steele had awakened and slipped from the room, boots in hand. Two Guns never slept, so most of the south side was still abuzz with clinking glasses, creaky roulette wheels, murmuring voices and tinny pianos. Pausing to tie his gun down, Steele moved along the street. He stood in the doorway of the Bucket O’ Blood for a few moments, observing the boisterous crowd. He meandered down one side of the street, crossed it about midway and came up the other side.

The Providence was jumping, nearly every gaming table was filled and throngs of men lined the two bars. Bet Thayer sat at his customary table, his back to the wall, dealing out a hand of five-card draw.

“Something for you, Marshal?”  Lute, the head bartender, asked.

“Coffee, Lute.”

Mayor Garza pushed through the crowd and greeted Steele. “Good job on getting those bandits, Jack! Why everyone’s been talking about it. Curly was a well-liked man.”

Steele set his hat on the bar. “He deserved better, Mayor. Best I could do was get the ones that did for him.”

Garza introduced the well-dressed, heavy-set, florid-faced man beside him, “Marshal, this is Heinrich Mueller, he’s a vice president for the A & P.”

“Glad to know you, Mueller.” The bartender set a coffee cup on the bar. Steele nodded his thanks to Lute, but asked Mueller, “You enjoying your stay?”

Ja, for sure,” Mueller nodded vigorously. Both his chins bobbed in unison. His glazed eyes suggested that he had enjoyed more than his share of drinks this night. “How is it that a man alone keeps the peace?”

“Reputation and luck,” Steele replied grimly. He knew neither of them would last forever; he felt he was already overdue …

“Marshal Steele is too modest, Herr Mueller! He’s one of the most famous gunfighters in the West,” Garza exclaimed, giving Mueller a hearty slap on the back. “As long as he’s around, your company’s investment is safe.”

“Good to hear,” Mueller smiled. “Tomorrow I shall take a ride out to the canyon to see what the delay is.”

“Let’s drink to that,” the mayor suggested and they moved down the bar.

Steele held his coffee in his left hand as he surveyed the crowd. Seeing Thayer move toward the opposite end of the bar, the marshal put his hat on and walked down there to meet him.

“How’s it going, Bet?”

“Sometimes I think I’m too old for this,” the gambler said, as he squeezed his eyes closed for a moment. “There has been talk about how you handled the Gruber gang.

“Judge Akeley is glad the Gruber outfit is out of business, but he said he can’t condone the way it was done. Too much like vigilantes, he said. And, you know, Mitch Hall is against you.”

“Gave them a chance to surrender, Bet.”

“You must be getting soft, Jack.” Thayer offered a smile before turning serious. “Wonder what’s in Hall’s craw? He sure seems to have it in for you.”

“I have no idea,” Steele shrugged. After a brief pause, he changed the subject, “I need a deputy Bet.”

“No.” Thayer picked up the shot glass before him and downed its contents in one swallow; then motioned for a bartender to fill it again. “I’m a gambler, Jack. I couldn’t concentrate on my cards if I had to worry about enforcing the law. Besides, I know nothing about wearing a badge.”

“Maybe not, Bet, but you’re the best man in town. You can shoot and you know when not to,” Steele argued. “You’ve got the right instincts for it.”

“Sorry,” Thayer said. He picked up his drink, but then set it back down. “Have you thought of Cull? He’s a good man.”

“He turned it down, too,” Steele sighed. “I’m thinking of Cole Farnum.”

“Farnum?” Thayer threw a hard glance at Steele, “He’s one of Gratton’s boys.” The gambler began to roll a smoke. “That might send the wrong message.”

“I know, Bet. But, dammit, I need someone.”

“What about him?” Bet asked, nodding toward the door.

Wally Dalton had just entered the Providence. He crossed to the bar and several men moved aside for him.

“He’s eager to use that gun.”

“So were we once, Jack. But we outgrew it and so can he.”

“Maybe.” Steele started to walk away and then turned back suddenly. “Bet? Have you heard anything about Tang’s murder?”

“Nothing new. You might ask Arbuckle—that’s him at the faro table. He was the first one on the scene.”

Steele walked to the faro table in time to hear the dealer say, “Queen’s the winner, gentlemen!” Grinning broadly, Arbuckle accepted his winnings.

“Luck’s running your way tonight, Arbuckle.”

“I’m not complaining, Marshal,” the gambler acknowledged. “It’s on my side for now.”

Steele noticed the feather in Arbuckle’s hatband and asked about it.

“Found it the night Tang was ambushed,” Arbuckle said. “It was a night when my luck wasn’t running so good at the tables, so I sought … solace, if you will,. I saw Tang by the door, talking with a cowboy and then he headed around the building.

“I had stopped on the porch to light my pipe when I heard the shotgun. I hurried around the building—cautiously, you understand—and saw the body just lying there. He never had a chance.”

“Did you see anything?”

“A pair of shadows running away, but they were too far to make out. I fired a couple of shots—and might have grazed one of them. Leastways I knocked this feather from his hat. Not sure if its an eagle feather, or maybe a hawk.”

“Turkey,” Steele said.

“Well, it’s been lucky for me,” Arbuckle laughed.

It hadn’t proven very lucky for Wong Tang, Steele thought. And it wasn’t lucky for Jed Wright. The Missourian was the only man Steele had seen wearing a turkey feather in his hat in Two Guns.

 

======

 

“Try this, Gunnison,” Seth Gratton said. He turned from the liquor cabinet in his office, glass in hand. “It’s Cognac, a gentleman’s drink.”

The Hashknife foreman accepted the glass and took a taste; he spit the liquid onto the floor. “Skunk juice! Hell, it ain’t fit to drink,” Art Gunnison moaned. “Give me rotgut any time.”

Gratton fought down his anger. How dare this dirty, barely literate cowboy treat his immaculate office as if it were some hay-strewn bunkhouse! He started to speak, then thought better of it. His arrangement with Gunnison was making good money.

“Well, the sooner we conclude our business, the sooner you can go out to the bar, Gunnison,” Gratton said, taking his seat. “Remember, it’s on the house.”

“Obliged, Gratton,” the foreman said. “Something went wrong with this last job.”

That is an understatement, Gratton thought, but he said, “Somebody must have gotten careless.”

“Gruber was a planner; he’d always pulled off his jobs without fuss. First time anyone was killed on one of his jobs,” Gunnison continued. He looked squarely at Gratton, “At first I figured I’d been doublecrossed. But, a couple of the boys tracked them down to the old Wilson place, over on Jackrabbit Wash. They saw five, fresh-dug graves.”

“What were they doing at this Wilson place, as you call it?”

“It’s an old adobe, been abandoned for years. Owlhoots use it as a hideout. I don’t think Gruber knew of it, but Clem might have,” Gunnison finally dropped into a seat before the desk. “All I can figure is that they were hiding out for some reason. There was no money.”

“No money? There was $40,000 on that stage.”

“We didn’t find a wooden nickel. Did anybody bring your cut in?”

Realizing that the five graves probably meant that the whole gang was together at Wilson’s, Gratton shook his head. “Not a penny. I thought Gruber had run off, too.”

“They way I see it is that Steele must’ve gotten a tip, or something. He followed them to the adobe and killed them.”

“I think you’re right,” Gratton agreed.

Gunnison pounded a fist into his empty palm. “We got to do something about Steele! I can send some of the boys in—”

Gratton held his hand up, “Now, hold on, Gunnison. I think we can get rid of Steele legally. He’s marshal of Two Guns, so whatever he did away from town was done without any official authority. I’m having my attorney draft a complaint, seeking to have Steele removed from office. His unsavory reputation will be his undoing.”

“Fine, as long as somethings done—and quick. Now, what about these diamonds?”

Gratton paused briefly, then looked up with cold eyes. “Diamonds?”

“The talk’s all over the county by now,” Gunnison replied. “Word is that there’s a lost diamond mine. We still partners, ain’t we, Gratton?”

“Of course, we are, Gunny! Don’t even worry about that,” Gratton said, offering a reassuring smile. “I’ll send a couple of my to nose around.”

 

19

The daily sun lingered yet in the western sky, streaking the blue sky with bright pink patches fringed in purple. The stifling heat of the day had fled, and there was an agreeable temperature in the early evening,

“When they complete the railroad, this place will really bust wide open,” Seth Gratton said. He was dressed in his finest broadcloth suit and his hair was slicked back, his mustache neatly trimmed.

Twirling her parasol on her dainty shoulder, Dixie Chalice looked off in the distance, toward Canyon Diablo.

“How did the canyon get its name?”

“The Apaches used to follow the canyon north to attack Navajo villages. Then they would flee down the canyon and the Navajos could never catch up to them; it was as if the Apaches vanished into thin air.

“One day a man was searching for lost sheep and he heard voices—speaking Apache. Quietly he slipped away and alerted the men of his village. They went back to the spot and quickly realized that the Apaches had found an underground cave,” Gratton explained. “That was how they seemed to disappear after each raid. What looked to be no more than a hole opened up into a small cavern. The Navajos set brush atop the opening and lit it. The Apaches were roasted alive.”

“How terrible,” Dixie gasped.

“Well, that’s the story anyway,” Gratton shrugged. “Who knows if it’s true? The Navajos avoid the canyon; they say it is a place of bad spirits.”

Gratton enjoyed the envious looks he was receiving from men on the street. Dixie’s debut had been a smash and half the men of Two Guns had fallen in love with her. As they continued their walk along the street a few men would tip their hats or offer a polite greeting.

Gratton was smug, knowing how smart he had been to sign Dixie to an exclusive contract o sing at his Golden Nugget, which was filled to capacity every night she performed.

“Miss Gish!” a cowboy exclaimed as he stepped from Big Bloke’s and found himself face to face with Gratton and the lady. “I never expected to find you here.”

“Excuse me?” Dixie spoke softly. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

The cowboy removed his hat so she could get a better look. “It’s me, Hank LeCour.”

“I am sorry,” Dixie said sharply. “You have made a mistake, Mr. LeCour.”

“Surely, you remember—”

Gratton had been standing silently beside Dixie, confused and curious, now he stepped forward and took the cowboy by the arm.

“The lady made it clear that she doesn’t know you, mister,” Gratton said. “Now why don’t you drag your freight out of here?”

“Sorry,” the cowboy said, as he put his hat back on. “She looked familiar.”

Dixie drew her wrap tighter, “It’s starting to get chilly, Mr. Gratton. I think I’ll retire to my room to rest a bit before I go on tonight.”

Gratton started to object when he noticed Radbourn, coming down the opposite sidewalk, waving at him.

“Okay, that sounds like a good plan, my dear.” Gratton touched his hatbrim, “Maybe we can catch a late dinner, after the show?”

Dixie turned south and walked off. Hank LeCour was here; she knew the “mistaken identity” meeting was simply to let her know that everything was ready.

Gratton angled across the street to meet Radbourn.

“Found’em, Boss. They’re a-waitin’ in your office.”

“Saw Tetlow getting on the stage today,” Gratton commented. “Looked like he’d had an accident.”

Radbourn was a stocky, unshaven brute who smelled of stale sweat a cheap whiskey, but he took care of his gun. He chuckled at the boss’ words.

“Yeah, guess he run into something in the dark. He says he has no idea where that old Injun finds his diamonds.”

“And you believe him?”

“Sure do, Boss. If he knowed anything he would of talked instead of taking a beating.”

“There’s a feller in town.” Gratton described Hank LeCour. “See whatyou can find out about a Miss Gish from New Orleans.”

Gratton nodded a greeting to Skinny as he walked past the bar and down the hall to his office. The Wright brothers were sitting quiet, waiting for him. It was Jed who spoke first.

“You ain’t sore on account of we kilt that Chinaman, are you, Boss?”

Gratton dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand. “What I’m interested in, is that old Navajo. Have you had any luck?”

Jed shook his head. “Not one whit. He leaves mighty little sign, that one. We find a trail and then it peters out after a bit.”

“But we’ll get him,” Ned insisted.

“Alive,” Gratton said, looking from one brother to the other. “I need him alive and able to talk.”

“We’ll find him, Mr. Gratton,” Jed promised.

“You boys better keep out of sight for a while. Steele’s been looking all over town for you,” Gratton said. “He knows you killed the Chinaman. He saw your turkey feather, Jed.”

Absentmindedly, Jed reached a hand up to where the feather used to be stuck in his hat. “That was a close call,” he said, revealing a toothless grin.

“Make camp out by The Crossing, you can use the old Wilson place. I’ll send one of the boys out there with supplies in the morning,” Gratton said. “And, remember, I need that Navajo alive.”

Jed Wright moved to the back door and opened it a crack, listening for any unusual sounds. He stepped out, with Ned right behind him. It was dark along the backsides of the buildings, but the Wrights had done this before so they knew the layout. On their left were some old barrels, one used to rinse out the glasses when called for, and most of the buildings had woodpiles behind them. There were several outhouses, but all to the south, away from the creek.

“Been a spell since we’uns et anything, Jed. I’m powerful hungry.”

“You heard the Boss,” Jed said over his shoulder. “We got to hightail it out of town.”

About 50 yards behind the Pizen the ground dipped away; it was there the Wrights had left their horses. It was an overcast night, with the silver moon slipping playfully behind the handful of dark clouds floating in the sky.

“Long ride to The Crossing,” Ned suggested.”A bottle might make it more pleasing.”

Jed stopped and straightened up. He looked south, the next closest saloon was the Lucky Strike and it was three doors down. He had a bad feeling; something that had been nagging at him ever since he lost his lucky feather. But that was just superstition, wasn’t it? It seemed quiet enough on the street, and Ned was right, both about the food and bottle.

“Awright, Ned. You go git us a bottle and I’ll rustle up some vittles,” he decided. “We’ll meet back here in five minutes. Keep your eyes open.”

For a moment, Jed stood still and watched his brother slip away in the dark, then, leaning his shotgun against a woodpile, he crept through the shadows as he crossed the creek and paused at the corner of the marshal’s office to study the street. There was the usual traffic; men going about their business. Jed hurried across the Hell Street to Big Bloke’s and ordered a couple of sandwiches from a Mexican waitress.

He took a seat near the door, doing his best to act naturally. He nearly jumped out of his skin when a boisterous cowboy knocked his silverware to the floor.

Jed Wright stared down at his hands; they were gnarled, worn hands, hands that had held the power of life or death in them. It was usually death. He and his brother had preyed on unwary travelers along the Natchez Trace and drifted west just ahead of a lynch mob. They come west too late to be buffalo hunters and had no interest in sweating away in some underground mine.

But both Wright brothers had been shooting since they were knee-high to a hound dog and it came easy to them. Once they discovered that they could make money by doing other folks’ killings, they were set on their wanton path of death and destruction.

Jed stood up, his back to the room. Why couldn’t he shake this feeling that had come over him? Killing had never bothered him before, so why should it now?

“Sir?”

Jed gave a start, and then turned slowly. Angelina, the Mexican waitress, was holding a small burlap sack.

“Obliged,” he said, handing her two dollars. He turned and walked out the door. There was a light on at Judge Akeley’s house and a dim streetlamp before the mayor’s, otherwise the northern end of town was shutdown, but the south end was alive and restless.

Jed’s eyes went to the marshal’s office; there was no light coming from it. He took a step …

“Hey, mister!”

Jed Wright felt like someone had punched him in the belly, as his shoulder blades involuntarily clenched. Slowly he turned. He saw the badge.

“You, okay, mister? You look a little green around the gills.”

“I’m fine, Deputy,” Jed said hoarsely. “Gettin’ a bit of a chill I’m afraid.”

Wally Dalton held out his hand, “You forgot your change, friend.”

“Thank you, Deputy,” he said, managing a faint smile. Dalton turned away and went back inside the restaurant.

Jed wasted no time scurrying across the street; once, in the shadows, he moved swiftly along the rear of the buildings. What was that? Had he heard a sound? A footfall? Or some prowling mutt sniffing around? That dark shadow by the backdoor of the Pizen, had it been there a moment ago?

“Come on, Jed.”

Ned’s voice was soft and just ahead of him. He felt better when he was reunited with Ned.

“You okay, Jed? You look like you see’d a boogerman?”

“I’m okay, Ned. Just getting jumpy as an old spinster maiden, I reckon.” He looked toward where they had left the horses; the moon had moved a bit and its bright beams began a few feet ahead of them. “You got the bottle?”

“Yep, nothing to fret on.”

“Let’s go.”

The brothers stepped into the moonlight, not noticing a shadow that moved away from the woodpile.

“What’s your hurry, pilgrims?”

“Who’s there?” Ned demanded.

Jed turned slowly, cursing himself for not retrieving his shotgun first. He was passable with a handgun, but with a scattergun at this range who needed anything else?

“Show yourself, mister.”

John Carrier Steele stepped forward, into the moonlight. “You boys bushwhacked my friend.”

“We’uns ain’t hunting no trouble, Marshal,” Jed said. “Why, we was just a-leaving town. Ain’t that so, Ned?”

“Sure is, Marshal. Just riding out.”

“You boys ain’t riding out,” Steele replied. “Not unless dead men can sit a saddle!”

Ned was in the rear and he dropped the whiskey bottle while swinging his rifle barrel up. Steele took a quick step to the right, putting Jed between Ned and himself, all the while pulling his Colt .44 from his holster. The gun gave a sharp bark and Jed Wright took a step back, even as a second bullet drilled into his chest.

Ned had moved to get out from behind his brother, and now his rifle was out of position. He grunted as Steele’s bullet struck him in the belly. He struggled to lift the rifle, but it slipped from his hands and he toppled, falling face first in the cracked earth.

“I told Gratton that they dead.”

The new voice came from the deep shadows near the back door of the Pizen. Steele stood frozen in place, trying desperately to pick out the man, but was unable to locate him.

A match flared and in the glow, Steele recognized Cole Farnum’s face as the gunman lit a cigarette.

“Tang was my friend,” Steele said, dropping his gun in its holster. He tried to appear unconcerned, but all the while he half expected to see a flash of orange from the shadows.

“Way I see it, you saved me the trouble,” Farnum said conversationally. “Tang always treated me right. Those two were a pair of skunks.” A door slammed on Hell Street and running feet were coming nearer. “Well, it’s over. You feel better now, Steele?”

Steele looked down at the bodies. “I guess it’s true, Cole.”

“What’s that?”

“Two Wrights don’t make up for a Wong.”

 

20

“Wake up, you old fool!”

Buford Tucker’s eyes were barely open when rough hands grasped his shirt front and yanked him off the cot in the jail cell.

“W … what is this?” he mumbled. Tucker’s brain was still fuzzy from the night before and a railroad man celebrating his birthday kept buying him drinks.

“Let’s go,” Wally Dalton snarled, punctuating his command with a savage kick to the ribs. “This ain’t no hotel!”

A prisoner in the next cell sat on his bed, watching the deputy. “Aw, leave ‘im be, Wally. He ain’t doing no harm.”

“You mind your own affairs, Lavalle!” Dalton stepped in front of the second cell. “Maybe you want some of what he’s getting?”

Mike Lavalle remained silent, merely looking away. He was starting to think that the railroad was never coming through Two Guns, and the engineer was thinking of moving on.

“And you address me as Marshal Dalton from now on,” he said, returning to Tucker’s cell. He gave the drunkard another kick.

Buford staggered to his unsteady feet and meekly protested, “The marshal said it’s okay to sleep here if there’s an empty cell.”

“Steele won’t be marshal for long—”

“But I still am for now, Wally,” Steele said as came through the open doorway. “What’s going on here?”

“I told this old sot to move along, this ain’t a hotel.”

“I’ll handle this, Wally.” Steele hung his hat on a peg by the door.”You can leave now. And leave the badge on the desk.”

Dalton’s jaw dropped. “You can’t do that, Steele! The council’s meeting today and everyone knows you’re going to be fired.”

“Then, I reckon, it’ll be a bad day for both us. You’re too eager to push folks around, Wally. I thought, with some guidance, that … well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. You’re not lawman material.”

“You mean I’m not a killer, like you?” Dalton unpinned the badge and threw it toward the desk. The badge skidded off the desk and landed on the floor. “You just wait, Steele. I’ll show you! They’re going to fire you and then they’ll need a new marshal.”

“You figure that means you?”

“Damn right. Who else would take the job?” Wally puffed his chest out. “And when I’m marshal I’ll be coming for you, Mr. Widowmaker. I’ll run you out of my town—or bury you!”

“You’re wearing a gun now.”

Dalton took in a sharp intake of breath; he didn’t expect to be challenged so suddenly. In all his dreams of gunfighting there was a walkdown along Main Street, at high noon, and pretty women lining the balconies to watch their beloved hero vanquish yet another enemy. It was never like this, just thrown into his face with no audience to watch him in action.

“I’ll wait until the law’s on my side,” Dalton said. He grabbed his hat off the desk and stormed out.

Lavalle stood up and came to the bars. “It sure appears like you’re going to have to kill him, Marshal.”

Steele agreed, but didn’t want to say so. Suddenly, he felt old, as if the weight of the world was riding him hard. He turned to the woodstove and pushed the coffeepot over the burner.

“Take a seat, Buford. Some coffee will do you good.”

“What about me, Marshal? You talk with Lute over at the Providence?”

Taking the key ring off its hook Steele opened the second cell door. “Your story checked out, Lavalle. You’re free to go.”

Lavalle grabbed his hat off his cot. “Is it true, what Dalton says, Marshal? Is the council fixing to fire you?”

“Be their mistake,” Steele replied. “No brag, just fact.”

Disheveled and unwashed, Buford Tucker stumbled to the vacant chair near the woodstove, where he sat slumped over with his head in his hands.

“You hurt?” Steele asked.

Tucker shook his head. Steele had gotten Tucker a part-time job building the fence around Tetlow’s backyard, but now that Tetlow had fled Two Guns so had Tucker’s employment. Was it that idle time the led Tucker back to drinking? But, no, that couldn’t be it. Once he’d gotten himself sober he had picked up several odd jobs around town and had finally starting working at the blacksmith.

So what had pushed him to the edge again?

Nursing their coffees both men were content to sit in silence, each wrestling with their own demons. It was Tucker who broke the silence.

“Dang it, Jack, I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he said. “Guess I just ain’t no damned good.”

“You’re not letting me down, Buford. You’re shortchanging yourself.” Steele put his feet up on his desk and leaned back in his chair. “You had a tough break. It happens, man. That’s how life is. Think of it like this, when we’re born we’re put in the saddle for a ride, long or short. We all get bumped and bruised along the way and the truth is a fiery warhorse that will throw each of us in time. It will buck an’ sunfish every now and then, along the way, just to see if you’re still holding on. The only thing for sure is that we all get thrown at the end of the trail.

“You got no say at the start of your ride, and mighty little at the end. But it’s the trail in between that matters most, Tucker. Hell, you aren’t the first man to be dealt a tough break. A few years ago, I was right where you are.”

Tucker was surprised. “Like me? You don’t mean a drunk?”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” Steele said. “After … after Pie Town—” He had to stop to regain his emotions. “Well, I thought I was the lowest polecat to ever walk God’s green earth. I killed my best friend, a man who was rushing to help me. He had a wife. I left her a widow and the kids with no pa. I couldn’t stand to look at myself; I thought everyone I passed on the street was condemning me.

“It didn’t take long for the bottle to befriend me and promise me that everything would be all right. The bottle whispers sweet in your ear, Buford. It keeps the pain at bay. It becomes a windmill, and you keep going around and around. You drink to bury your pain, then you despise yourself when you’re sober. You vow to quit drinking, but that pain comes back around and you tell yourself you need the bottle just one more time. And, there’s always one more time after that.”

Tucker got up and refilled Steele’s cup before pouring himself another. “I’m gonna have this cup of joe and then I’m a-going to get myself cleaned up some and see if Hans won’t give me another chance.”

“I think he will, Buford. I got a hunch that when the fog of strong drink dissipates you’ll find you have a lot more friends than you realized.”

The boardwalk creaked and Bet Thayer appeared in the doorway. “The meeting’s about to start, Jack.”

Steele crossed the room, he took his hat off the peg and then turned back around. “Say, Buford. A little while back you were mumbling in your sleep and when I woke you, you blurted out ‘Not again’. What did you mean?”

“I saw something. I know it was supposed to be a secret. I wanted to tell you, Jack, I surely did. But I was afraid he’d kill me.”

“What did you see?”

“Gertie an’ me, we had us a little hideout up the canyon a ways; sometimes I go there just to think. I was up there and I saw that kid from the Hashknife—Billy—meet up with Farnum. The way they kept looking around, I knew they didn’t want to be seen. I didn’t think much of it at the time, that was before I knowed the stage was robbed. But that kid gave Cole a sack—I saw the logo—it was from Washington Trust.”

“Thanks, Buford,” Steele said, as he put his hat on. “If I see Wagner at the meeting, I’ll put in a good word for you.”

There was no town hall so the council met at various businesses; this one was being held in an empty upstairs room at the bank.

Bet Thayer glanced sideways at Steele, “These fools might be saving your life, Jack.” Steele grunted without comment, so Bet continued, “You already proved yourself; hell, you’ve lasted longer than any anyone else in Two Guns.” Bet chuckled at the thought. “A lot of folks lost their money betting against you; not me. I made a bundle, at 15-to-one. Cull won a good bit, too; though by the time he got in the odds were lowered.”

“Believe me that was one wager I was more than glad to see you win.”

“I would expect so. Did you know that only three people in town bet on your lasting a month?”

“Who was the third?”

“Cole Farnum.”

“Interesting,” was Steele’s only comment. Changing the subject, he asked, “How are my odds on surviving this meeting?”

“Not good. Hall wants you fired.”

“He’s been pushing since the day I got here,” Steele said. “I thought recovering his money would put him in good graces.”

The hallway was lined with spectators and the large meeting room was standing room only, filled by mostly men with a handful of women scattered about. Tables had been set up in the front of the room for the town councilors. Mitch Hall was already seated, as was Attorney Sid Cohen. The other two councilors—Arizona House owner Jerry Aldrich and businessman Claude Husereau—were mingling among the crowd. Looking around, he saw Mayor Garza off to one side in deep conversation with Judge Akeley. Some of the faces staring back at him were hostile, a few were openly supportive and most not taking any side, just there to see the show.

Seth Gratton was seated in the front row, off to the right, along with Hoss Radbourn and another gunhand; behind them sat Art Gunnison and a half dozen of the Hashknife outfit. Steele wondered where Cole Farnum was, or Cullen Bryant. He spotted Wally Dalton, who sneered at him belligerently.

“Follow me,” Bet whispered. He led the way to a pair of railroad men sitting to the left of the center aisle. At his approach they stood up and gave up their seats.

“Thanks, boys,” Thayer said as they merged back against the wall. To Steele, he smiled, “I paid them to hold a couple of seats for us.”

“Starting to feel like a public execution.” Steele said. As he looked toward Hall, he was startled to find such simmering hostility in the banker’s eyes.

His thoughts reverted back to Tucker’s comments about seeing a clandestine meeting between Cole Farnum and Billy Barney just after the stage had been robbed. He had suspected that the Gruber gang had an informant in town tipping them off to shipments, this could be the key. Farnum’s involvement would trace right back to Gratton!

But, could Buford Tucker be mistaken? Had he been drunk then? Was he in position to clearly see their faces? Steele was pulled from his thoughts by the loud rapping of a gavel on the council’s table.

“Let’s get started,” the mayor called out. “Come on, people! Settle down!” The background yammering died down. “This is a special meeting of the council, called for one purpose—to determine whether to retain the services of Marshal Steele.”

“Hang him!” one of the Hashknife wranglers cried out.

“Enough of that!” Garza replied sharply, as he banged the gavel. “We will have order here!” He let his gaze scan the crowd before continuing, “I do want to thank Marshal Steele for coming today; and I think it is only proper to make note of his tenure as the longest-serving marshal in Two Guns’ history.”

“Let’s get on with it,” Councilman Husereau grumbled.

“The motion to terminate Marshal Steele was made by Councilman Hall,” Garza explained. “Go on, Mitch state your case.”

The banker rose from his chair and grasped the lapels of his coat. He cleared his throat loudly before addressing the room.

“Our marshal has a long, sordid past. Why he is known—and not favorably so—as The Widowmaker.” Turning toward Steele, he asked, “How many good men have you killed, Marshal?”

“Didn’t keep count, Hall. But I would dispute that any of them were good.”

“Oh, of course! Only you can judge the goodness of a man, I suppose? I warned this council that if they hired Steele the streets of this town would run red with blood.”

“They was a-doing that before he got here!” a man shouted out to a round of laughter.

Garza pounded the gavel and looked sternly toward the audience.

“The violence has intensified since Steele’s appointment, and this must end,” Hall insisted. “Mr. Gratton, would you kindly tell us about one of your employees, the late Lorenzo Pike?”

Gratton got to his feet, with a solemn look on his face. “Lorenzo Pike was a good boy; he’d worked for me—hauling freight and such—for the past two years. He wasn’t a troublehunting man, no sir. I remember that day like it was yesterday. You see, we hadn’t known that Steele was in town and when Lorenzo happened to glance out the door and spot him, why he kind of froze up right there.

“I asked him if anything was wrong, and that’s when he told me the story of how Steele had gunned down his brother a few years back in Bodie. Lorenzo said he was going across the street o tell Steele just what he thought of such a cowardly killer who would shoot down an unarmed man!”

“And did young Mr. Pike tell Steele what he thought of him?”

“He never got the chance,” Gratton said.  “Steele spotted him right off and just killed him before he had a chance to talk. I guess Steele didn’t want folks to know what happened in Bodie.”

Hall nodded vigorously. “Steele is a mankiller. We need a lawman to clean up the town, not become its biggest problem.”

“Hold on, Mitch,” Councilman Cohen interjected. “Didn’t Steele recover the money stolen from your bank? You must give him some credit for that.”

“How many more men did he kill to get the money? And he did it outside of town, where he had no jurisdiction!” Hall countered. “But, more importantly, gentlemen, is the question of why he killed those men?”

“They were no good skunks,” a railroad man called out. “Ask Doc Magee about those women.”

There were murmurs of agreement and Garza had to repeatedly call for order.

“I won’t go into indelicate details,” Doc Magee said, as he stood up. “Suffice it to say that they suffered as no person should have to.”

“Those bandits deserved what they got, if you ask me,” Aldrich said, as the room burst into shouts of agreement.

The mayor pounded his gavel for order. “The Gruber gang chose to shoot it out, Mitch. What other choice did Marshal Steele have?”

“Was it the Gruber gang—or was it the Steele gang!”

A cascade of murmurings and gasps swept the room and Steele leapt to his feet.

“This charade has gone on long enough, Hall. What have you got against me, anyway?”

“You recovered the money from the stage robbery and turned it in, did you not?”

“You know damned well I did!”

“And, do you remember the amount, Marshal?”

“I handed over $20,000 to you; I put it right in your hands.”

“My point exactly,” Hall declared. He picked up some papers from the desk and waved them in the air. “These documents will show that there was $40,000 on the stage!” There were audible gasps in the room. “Forty thousand, Mr. Steele, not the $20,000 you turned in.”

“What do you have to say, Marshal?” Cohen asked.

The room went quiet and all eyes were on the embattled lawman.

Steele shrugged. “That’s all there was.”

The room was abuzz with noise as the council members took turns studying the bank documents.

“Everything’s in order,” Garza announced. “There was $40,000 on the stage. Curly’s mark is on this receipt.”

“I think Steele decided to doublecross the gang and keep the money,” Mitch Hall charged, as he jabbed a finger at Steele. “But he had second thoughts and decided to turn half the money in and keep half for himself.”

“I never stole nothing in my life!” Steele said, He took a step forward. “You aim to call me a liar, Hall?”

Garza jumped to his feet. “Now, now, gentlemen, no need for this to get out of hand,” he said soothingly. “Are you done, Mitch?” The banker nodded. “Then let’s call for the vote.”

“Nay,” Hall said loudly.

“I am inclined to vote in favor of Marshal Steele, but that missing $20,000 troubles me,” Cohen said. “I can’t, in good conscience, support Marshal Steele at this time. I vote nay.”

“I  always thought people were innocent until proven guilty? All I’ve heard today is a lot of blustering with scant evidence,” Aldrich said. “I vote aye.”

All eyes fell to Husereau.

“Nay.”

“By a vote of three to one,” Mayor Garza announced, “Mr. Steele is no longer the marshal of Two Guns.”

 

21

The driver popped his whip over the team’s heads and the horses lunged forward as the Flagstaff stage rolled away from the Wells Fargo depot.

“Well, there she goes,” Mayor Garza sighed.

Don Kirk, the mercantile owner nodded. “And our hopes go with it.”

“Wish I knew what he was going to report.”

“What’s your guess?” Mitch Hall asked. The banker had also come out to see Mueller off. His future hopes depended on the A & P.

“He didn’t commit himself one way or t’other,” Kirk replied.

“That business with the marshal didn’t sit well with him.”

“I showed you my paperwork,” the banker snapped.”Did you expect us to keep a thief as town marshal?”

“I’m not convinced Steele’s guilty,” Garza said.

“He seemed square to me,” Kirk agreed. “There has to be another explanation.”

“Tell me what it is, Don. All I know is I’m out $20,000,” Hall said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a case of if the shoe fits. How far aleap is it from murder to thievery?”

Joey Garza remained where he was as Hall returned to his bank and Kirk went to the mercantile. Several small groups of people were sprinkled along Hell Street, no doubt, discussing the events of the day and the likely fate of Two Guns. Celebratory gunfire erupted from a group of cowboys emerging from one of the dance halls.

Garza flinched. It was his dream to see the town grow, to become an important city in Arizona, a business hub between Chicago and California. There was money to be made, money enough for everyone. If only the town could calm down for just a few more days.

The mayor turned his head around at the sound of shattering glass as a man came hurtling through one of the front windows of the Pizen. As the cowboy tried to stagger to his feet, the barkeep—Skinny Munroe—burst through the batwing doors and sent the cowboy toppling backwards with a vicious kick to his chest.

A gang of Gratton’s toughs came from the saloon, glasses in hand, and cheered Skinny on as the beefy bartender savagely beat the clearly overmatched cowboy and left him motionless in the center of the street.

Seth Gratton couldn’t surpress a grin as he heard the commotion on the street. He had moved his headquarters from the Pizen to a larger, more lavish office on the second floor of the Golden Nugget. He was seated comfortably in his hide-back chair, a cigar held in the fingers of his right hand and a near empty glass of rum on the red maple desk before him.

“Rum is the drink that built America, Art,” Gratton said out of the blue.

Before coming upstairs, Art Gunnison had stopped at the bar for a bottle of whiskey; he was feeling pretty good himself.

“Well, maybe the governor never responded to your letter, Seth; but we got rid of Steele all the same!”

“There’s nothing to hold him here, so he will likely drift,” Gratton said. “We’re the law now in Two Guns.”

Gunnison tipped the bottle to his lips, taking a long pull. “After all that, to find out Steele is a common thief! He stole half the money!”

“Yeah, that was a pleasant development,” Gratton replied. A broad smile played on his lips as he closed his eyes and pictured the $20,000 securely tucked away in the iron safe behind him, still in the sack from the Washington Trust Bank!

“Listen, when’s the next job, Seth?” Gunnison asked.

“We need to recruit new boys.”

“I got some that are chomping at the bit. Since Clem went and got himself killed, I found a new segundo,” Gunnison said. “LeCour’s ready to step right in to Gruber’s place.” The foreman leaner closer, adding, “He rode on a couple of jobs with the Sundance Kid and that wild bunch up in the Hole in the Wall country.”

“I haven’t heard anything lately, Art,” Gratton said. “I’ll see what I can find out. The stage will be back next week; can you get your boys together by then?”

“We’ll be ready.”

“Okay, I’ll check out what it’ll be carrying. Have your man meet Radbourn at the usual place.”

“Radbourn?” Gunnison was mildly surprised. “Not Farnum?”

“Farnum’s too soft. I need a man I can count on, one who isn’t squeamish about killing when it needs to be done.”

After Gunnison left, Gratton relit his cigar and puffed contentedly. Cole Farnum had been acting queer ever since the last stage hold-up; was his conscience bothering him, Gratton wondered.

He had known all along that Farnum was a fast man on the draw, but lacked that cold, remorseless emptiness in his soul that marked the difference between a dangerous man and a killer. No, it was time to put his faith in Radbourn, Gratton decided. Radbourn was a selfish brute, just the kind of man Gratton understood. Gratton admitted to himself that he never really understood Farnum; who was a strange, brooding man, one often content with his own thoughts and his own company.

Farnum was a dangerous man, this Gratton knew. He had measured Farnum as one bull might size up another. In a stand-up gunfight, Farnum held the edge; but Gratton had no intention of ever giving a foe anything resembling an even break.

But, Cole Farnum could be a problem, a loose end that knew too much.

Now, with Steele out of the picture, Cole Farnum had ceased to be a necessary ace-in-the-hole. Seth Gratton allowed himself a half-grin; Farnum was a loose end that would have to be snipped.

 

22

 

Dixie Chalice was wearing a modest gray and white checkered dress, with a yellow scarf about her neck and dark blue sunbonnet; despite an attempt to look plain, the Southern belle was still an eye-catcher with her raven tresses, luscious red lips, wide, inviting eyes and long, soft lashes. As she entered the dining room at the Emporium—on the arm of Bet Thayer—every head turned; the men to stare wide-eyed at her beauty and the women jealously sizing up a rival. Somehow, despite their come-hither adornment and wicked smiles, the other women in Two Guns simply failed to get any attention when Dixie passed by. There were two exceptions to that general rule of thumb, though; they were Nizhoni Manuelito and, despite her middle-age, the quite handsome Clara Beauregard.

Thayer steered her toward an open table in the center of the room and pulled out her chair for her.

“Thank you, gallant sir,” Dixie said playfully, as Bet took the seat opposite her.

A waiter immediately appeared at her elbow and recited the dinner specials.

After the waiter had taken their orders, Dixie turned her attention back to the gambler. “I hear that they have a new chef here?”

“Michel Dubeau. He came highly recommended, Miss Chalice,” Thayer said. “You will not be disappointed in his fare. I understand that you are from New Orleans?”

She flashed a warm smile. “I have spent some years there, Mr. Thayer. I am originally from Tennessee—born and raised along Shooting Creek.”

“Hill country; I knew a feller from around those parts. That was some years back. Tyrel, I think his name was; he helped me out of a fix one time over to Mora way. I think he was a lawman, or had been.”

“And you, Mr. Thayer, where are you from?”

“I was born in Vermont, but farming was too tame for me, so I drifted. Ended up on a Mississippi riverboat, where I learned my current occupation.”

“Miss Clara seems to believe that you are quite good at it,” Dixie said. “I think she is a keen judge of talent.”

“That she is,” Bet nodded. “After all, she brought you here.”

“Thank you; it is most kind of you to say that. Now, tell me something else. What is your real name? I doubt it’s Bet.”

“Call me Warren.”

“Warren Thayer.It has a ring to it,” she decided. “Dixie is my given name.”

“You’ve become the biggest thing in town. I don’t think the Nugget has an empty seat on the nights you perform,” Bet said. “That’s part of the reason Joe asked me to speak to you.”

“Ah, I see. Mr. McGinnity is quite a persistent man.”

“You may not believe this, with his being involved in saloonkeeping and gambling, but Joe’s an honest feller, Dixie. He very much wants you to sing at the Providence.”

Dixie was aware that other patrons continued to sneak looks her way, but ignored them. “He has made several offers to me,” she replied. “Quite generous in fact.”

“Part of it is pure business. The Providence used to be standing room only nearly every night. Now, it seems like a ghost town on Saturday nights, when you’re performing at the Golden Nugget.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Part of it is business, you said?”

“He attended your debut at the Emporium.”

“I dare say it seemed as if everyone in town was there.”

“True enough,” Bet conceded. “But when you sang, Joe had tears in his eyes. He tried to blink them away, but I saw them. He was genuinely moved by your performance. He’s heard them all—Lotta Crabtree, Lillie Langtry—and he swears you put them to shame. Joe thinks that you can be bigger than Bernhardt someday. But he’s concerned for your current situation. And, frankly, so am I.”

“My current situation?”

Thayer cleared his throat and avoided making eye contact with her. “Well, I mean your … uh, association … with Seth Gratton.”

“Our relationship is strictly professional.”

“I didn’t mean to imply otherwise,” Bet hurriedly admitted. “But, there may be aspects to Gratton’s business that you are unaware of.”

“I sing at Mr. Gratton’s saloon, and I am well compensated for it,” Dixie said. She sat back as dinner was placed on the table before them. Once the waiter left, she continued. “I believe Mr. Gratton expects something more from our association, but I have no interest in that direction.”

“Your personal affairs are none of my business, of course. But you are rather new in Two Guns and may not be aware of certain things.” Thayer glanced around the room, then, leaning forward, he lowered his voice, “Gratton is a very dangerous man, Dixie. I fear you do not possess a full understanding of the situation.”

“You are referring to Gertie Beauregard?”

Bet was stunned and stared at her for a full minute. “How did you know about Gertie?”

“I have been staying at Miss Clara’s,” she explained. “I have heard some rumors—”

“It is more than rumor.”

“I thought her death was from an accidental fall?”

“That’s the official story, but many people around here don’t buy it. Gratton wanted her and he warned other suitors away from her. But Gertie didn’t share his affection and had been seeing another man on the side.”

“And you believe Mr. Gratton killed her out of jealousy?”

“I do believe that. However, as you surmise, there is no evidence to the contrary.”

“Then it is just idle gossip, baseless innuendo, Warren.”

“Just be careful,” Bet said. “I offer you my services should you require any aid.”

She patted his hand. “As I spoke earlier, you are indeed gallant, Warren. I shall be very much careful in my dealings with Mr. Gratton.”

“Should I convey any message to Joe?”

“Please let Mr. McGinnity know that I appreciate his faith in me and may reconsider his previous offer soon.”

After a relaxing dinner Thayer walked Dixie back to Miss Clara’s, before heading toward the Providence and his usual table. He played a deliberate game and at the end of the night had lost about thirty dollars, having trouble keeping his mind on the cards.

As a gambler, skilled at reading people, the thought that Dixie Chalice was hiding something gnawed on his mind. There was nothing he could put his finger on, no wrong thing said or done; it was just a gut feeling. To a man like Thayer, who played his hunches, often to great advantage, it was enough to merit consideration.

Who was Dixie Chalice, and what could she be hiding?

As he lay in his bed that night, Bet’s thoughts switched to Hank LeCour. Bet had been at the bar and overheard Radbourn’s clumsy questioning of LeCour a week or two earlier and—as it concerned Dixie—he was intrigued.

LeCour had seen Dixie on the street and mistook her for Lillian Gish, someone else he had known in New Orleans. That was the story Radbourn left believing, but Thayer got to wondering about LeCour.

Who was he?

LeCour dressed like any cowboy might, nothing unusual in his attire; yet was he a drifting cowhand? He didn’t have the ruggedness of someone who wrestled steers and fought the weather year-round, nor the sunburned features common to many. Also, he hadn’t seemed to be seeking work. LeCour had a room at the Arizona House and seldom left it other than to sit around Big Bloke’s or one of the seedier Hell Street dives. He wasn’t out roaming the desert searching for lost diamond mines, like some others were doing, and he didn’t seem to be a railroad man.

So who was Hank LeCour? And why had he come to Two Guns?

 

======

 

The stench of death hovered along the streets and alleyways of Two Guns, clinging to the air like creeping vines entangled around a mangrove tree.

Against all odds, violence in the town had substantially decreased after Steele had pinned on the badge; but with his removal from office it seemed but a matter of hours before the choking stillness would spit out angry bullets and drip blood.

There was a fistfight at the Bucket O’ Blood that ended with one man knocked senseless and the other missing part of an ear; at the Pizen saloon, Hoss Radbourn pistol-whipped a belligerent drunk and Skinny tossed another out into the street; and a couple of drifting cowboys at the Gem Gambling Hall got the worst of it when a dispute over the cards led them into an unwise altercation against three rugged railroad track layers.

In room 13 at the Arizona House John Carrier Steele was sitting next to the window, slowly perusing a month-old copy of the San Francisco Examiner. The paper—owned by a young man named Hearst—tended to take a sensationalist tone on stories, but was an entertaining read and gaining in popularity. Even with his spectacles on Steele had to squint at the fine print as he read a story about a possible rematch between the new heavyweight boxing champion, bulky Bob Fitzsimmons, and the former titleholder, San Francisco’s “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. The lithe Corbett had been an unpopular champion since winning the belt in 1892; part of it was his boring, scientific style, which emphasized defense over attack, and then there was the fact that he had dethroned a beloved legend; John L. Sullivan, was the country’s firstnational sports hero.

There was a sudden knock on the door. Steele drew a Colt from the holster hanging on the headboard.

“Come in.”

The knob turned slowly and the door swung open; Cole Farnum smiled ruefully as he looked into the muzzle of the Peacemaker.

“I’m friendly, Steele.”

“You better be, with a Colt pointed at your bread basket,” Steele remarked. He indicated the lone chair in the room. “What’s on your mind, Cole?”

“A friendly warning,” Farnum said. He dropped into the chair. Pushing his Stetson back on his head, he continued, “That Dalton kid is going around making war talk. Figured you ought to know.”

Steele shoved his gun back in its holster. “Yeah, heard some talk before.”

“I think he’s serious this time, Jack,” Farnum said. “He’s working himself up to a killing.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You know he’s been strutting like a rooster ever since he killed Wheeler; if I read him right, he’s looking for another notch on his gun,” Farnum said. “And, damn, if the kid ain’t really filin’ notches, too!”

Steele snorted his disgust. “Only a tinhorn does that. Dalton’s got less sense than his father had, and Sam Dalton was dumb as a stump.”

“Well, the kid’s fit to be tied now, Jack. The council picked a new marshal, and it wasn’t Dalton.” Steele’s interest was obvious. “Bryant took the job. They had a time talking him into it.”

“He’s a good man.”

“Wally’s spitting mad over it,” Farnum explained. “He figured the job would be his. He thinks you talked against him to the council.”

“They never asked,” Steele said. “Hell, Cole, they fired me, why would they ask my opinion on anything?”

“That’s not how Dalton sees it, and he’s promising to make you pay for badmouthin’ him.”

Steele sighed. After he was fired, he planned to leave town right away, but something kept him here. He admitted to himself that it was Clara Beauregard. They had been extremely close at one time and still shared a special bond of friendship. He knew she would go away with him if he asked, and he was considering doing the asking. But nothing had changed; he was still a gunman—older and slower—with a bleak future staring him in the face.

Turning his thoughts back to Farnum, he remarked, “I figured you had my hide staked out for yourself.”

“That’s why Gratton hired me,” Farnum grinned wickedly. “Tell you the truth, I was considering it. I’d grown up hearing all about your time in Abilene and Pie Town; I had half a mind to call you out.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“It was those,” Farnum said, indicating the eyeglasses half-hidden under a pillow. “I didn’t know you was wearing specs, but I thought it might be so. That night you kilt those Wrights, I could see how much you was straining your eyes, trying to see me in the shadows. To test you, I moved several feet to one side and your eyes never followed me. That’s when I knew your eyes were going bad, Jack. I decided there was nothing to gain by bracing you.”

“No one else knows about my eyes. Far as the world is concerned, you’d still be the man that killed me, and no one the wiser.”

“I’d know, Jack. I would know. You and me are from a different era, when there was a code men like us lived by. We never shot an unarmed man, nor took mean advantage,” Farnum said. “Men like us—the shootists and pistolfighters—had honor. We killed when forced to, but we never had to hang our heads in shame for it. We met our enemies face to face, and let the devil take the hindmost.

“That time’s dying out now; I figure you and me, we’ve outlived our time. Only a few still live by the old code. Maybe we’re the last of them.

“Yeah, I thought about calling you out; but when I saw your eyes were going, well … I never kilt nobody that didn’t get a fair shake.”

“I reckon I undersold you, Cole,” Steele said. “You’re a good man.”

“I ain’t no angel,” Farnum said, standing up. “But you have no truck with me, Jack. I’ll just have to wonder how it would have come out.”

“Thanks, Cole,” Steele said.

Farnum paused at the door, “I’ve seen men with nerve before, Jack. But when I realized that you took this job with your eyes, well, sir, that’s true grit.”

Steele held out his hand, “Vaya con Dios.”

“You, too,” Farnum said, accepting Steele’s handshake. “But you watch out for Dalton.”

Closing the door, Steele listened to Farnum’s footsteps as they faded away. He turned, looking around his Spartan room. He had little enough to show for all his years as a peace officer. Suddenly, his mind was made up; he would ride out—he would leave now.

As he gathered his meager belongings he thought of Miss Clara. It wouldn’t be fair to ask her to go with him. Where would they go? He was a lonely man with a sordid past, and no good future.

One thing still rankled Steele about this stay in Two Guns; he had not been able to discover the stage robber’s spy in town. The way Steele saw it, whoever that source was, was the man responsible for Curly Kissick’s death. He believed that man was Seth Gratton, but lacked any evidence. It was just past noon and he glanced toward Big Bloke’s; but, for the first time, he found no joy in the thought of seeing Nizhoni.

No, it was best just to saddle up and move along down the trail, he decided.

“Mr. Steele!” Kincaid, the bank teller, had just emerged from the restaurant carrying a sack lunch, and now hurried across the street.

“Howdy, Kincaid. Doesn’t Hall let you have time off for lunch?”

“Well,” Kincaid replied, with a timid grin, “He does demand a full day’s work. Mr. Hall says that hard work builds character in a man.”

“Maybe, Harlan. But I notice most of the folks that preach that way are the ones setting down watching others do the hard work.”

“I just wanted to tell you that the mayor and Judge Akeley were asking for you. They are there now,” Kincaid said, nodding his head toward Big Bloke’s.

Steele glanced toward Big Bloke’s; it was lunchtime and he could use a bite to eat. “Obliged, Harlan.”

The teller hurried toward the bank, calling over his shoulder, “No problem.”

So Garza and Akeley wanted to see him? He hadn’t spoken to either since the day he was terminated; he figured they believed that he had stolen the missing $20,000, as many people around town obviously did.

The room was bustling when he entered; Joey Garza spotted Steele and waved him over.

“I was afraid you might have left town,” the mayor said. Spotting the bedroll under Steele’s arm, he added, “It appears we found you just in town.”

Judge Akeley reached inside his coat and removed a letter. “I secured this appointment for you, Jack. That is, if you want it.”

Steele took the letter and carefully read it before looking up. “Is this for real, Judge?”

The silver-haired jurist nodded. “You’ve been offered an appointment as a Deputy United States Marshal for the territory.”

“We had it at the council meeting,” Garza added. “But when Mitch mucked up the works, we decided we better check our hole cards. I sent a wire to Commodore Perry Owens and he confirmed your story. We have a sworn statement from Cullen Bryant, too.”

“No one in their right mind is going to accuse Owens of telling a lie,” Akeley chuckled. “As far as the law is concerned, you are in the clear, Jack.”

The judge held out a badge and, after a brief pause, Steele reached for it. Maybe he could get justice for Curly, after all.

 

23

The assay office had been left vacant when Tetlow fled town, so Steele had taken it over as his office. He crossed the street and entered the building. The marshal had his doubts about the future of Two Guns.  The frenzied hunt for lost diamond mines was steadily drying up as no one had been able to discover anything. Wherever Crazy Pete had found his diamonds, it was likely to remain a secret—unless someone got the old Navajo to talk.

There was a step on the boardwalk and then Jeff Bloom appeared in the doorway.

“You look like you have something on your mind.”

“Howdy, Jeff,” Steele said. “I was just thinking about Crazy Pete. He hasn’t been around since Tetlow left.”

The Gazette editor shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t think anyone else will buy his rocks. Pete was always a strange coot; barely spoke to anyone. Anyway, it isn’t that unusual, Marshal. Sometimes he disappears for four, five months. You never can tell with him.”

“No one’s ever figured out where he finds those diamonds?”

There was a map of the territory on the wall, Bloom gazed at it and shook his head. “There has been lots of speculation, but nothing has ever panned out. It could be anywhere out there. Pete Nataani wanders all over the place. Somehow he lives off the land, though the desert barely looks like it could provide for a mouse.”

“The Navajos have lived here for centuries, so if anyone knows how to survive it would be them.”

“Suppose so,” Bloom agreed. Changing the subject, he said, “The reason I stopped by was to tell you about a wire I just received from El Paso. Wes Hardin got himself killed.”

“Hardin? What happened?”

“I am waiting for more details. All I know is that he was shot by Selman, the old man.”

“Selman was a tough hombre, as I recall. I didn’t figure him for a gunfighter, though.”

“Well, you can relax a little now,” the editor said. “This will put an end to those rumors that Hardin was coming for you.”

“I never gave it much thought,” Steele lied. “I have enough trouble right here.”

“Cole Farnum?”

“Farnum, maybe. But there’s Radbourn, Rawls and Fuentes,” Steele said. “Gratton’s got a tough crowd, and a few of those Hashknife boys are mighty salty, too.”

“And Dalton?”

“I’ve got an eye on him, Jeff.”

“Ever since he killed Wheeler, he’s paraded it about town. If ever I saw a man eager to kill, it’s him.”

Steele grunted, they asked, “Do you think the town will last, Jeff?”

Bloom pondered the question, then slowly shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think Two Guns benefitted from being an end-of-the-track town. With the delay in constructing the railroad trestle, Two Guns was able to grow bigger and last longer than most of those hell-on-wheels places, but I think the writing’s on the wall, Jack. This town’s days are numbered.”

“You sound like a man thinking about moving on down the trail.”

“The thought has crossed my mind, but I’m a newspaperman and I want to see how this turns out,” Bloom replied. “What about you?”

“I want to take Gratton down a peg or two. I know he’s mixed up in the stage hold-ups, so, in a way, that makes him responsible for what happened to Curly. I was hoping that when he regained consciousness Gruber would cooperate.”

“Someone else thought along those lines, too,” Bloom said.

Gruber had been near death when Steele brought him into Doc Magee’s, and despite Magee’s best efforts the stage robber had not improved very much. He drifted in and out of consciousness, never coherent enough for interrogation. Then someone had gotten inside the Doc’s house and slit Gruber’s throat.

“Gratton will slip up,” Steele predicted. “And I’ll be there.”

“Think he’ll turn Farnum loose?”

“Cole’s out of it.”

The newspaperman glanced sideways at the deputy marshal, “Now, you seem pretty certain of that.”

“We talked some.”

“Oh?” Bloom said with surprise. “Anything for print?”

Steele shook his head. “Cole was a messenger for Gratton, but that was about it. He doesn’t know how Gratton finds out about what the stage is carrying. But he was disgusted by that last hold-up, and he quit.”

“He better be careful then.” At the marshal’s questioning look, Bloom added, “I was just thinking of Gruber. Seth Gratton doesn’t seem like a man that likes to leave things to chance.”

Everyone in Two Guns seemed to think that Gratton had his fingers in several illicit activities, yet no one had been able to prove anything against him. Were people wrong about Gratton, or afraid to talk? Steele was betting on the latter.

If Gratton was mixed up in the stage robberies, he couldn’t be alone. The fact that Cole Farnum admitted carrying messages to some of the Hashknife riders proved that point. But how could he get anyone to talk?

Farnum had a strange sense of honor; he had worked for Gratton and taken his money. With that came a certain amount of loyalty; Farnum had quit when Gratton was involved in something the gunman found despicable, but his misplaced honor wouldn’t let him spill the beans.

Was Farnum a loose end, Steele wondered. The thought suddenly popped into his head and, right away, Steele knew the answer. Gratton wasn’t from the West, he wouldn’t understand the code of honor that men like Farnum—or Steele, himself—adhered to. Gratton would view Farnum as a potential foe, as a man that knew too much.

One thing he had learned about crooks was that they always assumed that everyone else was just as dishonest as they were, and so they didn’t trust anyone else. It was the whole “no honor among thieves” adage, and, even if Farnum told Gratton point blank that he would never talk, the bar baron would not believe it.

So, Farnum was one loose end; who were the others? There had to be several at the Hashknife, but Steele knew none of that outfit. But Cullen Bryant did! Would he talk? Steele made a mental note to ask him.

Did Gratton use other men as messengers? Maybe he could keep an eye on the Pizen, where most of the Gratton crowd hung out, and see who rode toward Canyon Diablo.

And then he thought about the death of Gertie Beauregard. It was ruled an accident, but was it? Had Buford Tucker killed her for some reason? Or Gratton?

Gratton was said to have been interested in Gertie and he had warned most of her suitors away. Had she told Gratton that she was in love with Tucker? If she had, how would a man like Gratton respond?

From everything he had learned since arriving in Two Guns, Steele knew that Gratton was a man who used violence and intimidation to get what he wanted. If Gratton hadn’t murdered anyone yet, he was certainly capable of it, Steele figured.

The next morning, after breakfast, Steele decided to pay a visit to Doc Magee. The doctor was sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch, reading a thick medical tome when Steele opened the creaky front gate.

“Morning, Jack!” Doc called out cheerily. “Looks like it’s going to be a nice day.”

“Hope so, for the last few days it has been over a hundred degrees.”

Lowering his voice, Doc asked about Steele’s spectacles.

“Working fine, Doc. I should’ve started wearing ‘em years ago. Might have saved my eyes.”

“Prolonged your vision some, I’d think. But eventually you would have been right where you are today.”

“Well, thanks for keeping it a secret.”

Por nada,” Magee said with a wave of his hand. “But, you know one of these days you will need to wear them all the time.”

“I know, Doc. I hope to put it off as long as possible. If I show up on the street wearing specs, I might as well pin a bull’s eye on my back. It’d be open season on U.S. Marshals.”

“To tell you the truth, Jack, I’m surprised you’ve lasted this long. I mean Two Guns hasn’t been very hospitable to lawmen,” Magee said. “No offense meant, but with your advanced age, I’d have thought your reflexes had slowed a bit.”

“I’m a little surprised myself, Doc.”

“Why do you think none of these young guns around town have challenged you?”

“Reputation, Doc.”

Magee scratched his jaw. “Now, that’s surprising. I thought the reputation would draw challengers like an outhouse draws flies.”

“A rep’s a funny thing, Doc. As much trouble as it has brought my way, it’s saved me way more grief. Folks know I’m good with a gun—and they know I’ll use it—so they think twice,” Steele explained. “There’re probably fifty men in town right now who think about killing me. But half of them will never do more than think about it.

“Another fifteen will convince themselves that they could do it, but they aren’t willing to pay the price for being wrong. There are probably five around who could salt me away, but they walk on the side of the law, and wouldn’t do it without a mighty good reason. Three will decide to try me, but their blood will turn to water when the moment comes.”

“That still leaves two.”

“Yeah, I reckon so,” Steele agreed with a wry grin. “The trick, Doc, is figuring out which two and keeping a sharp eye on them.”

“Have you decided which two?”

“Would have said Farnum; but we talked it out and he’s pulled in his horns. The other one might be Reb Shannon.”

“Shannon? He rides with Hashknife. I always thought of him being a bit slow; I’d never peg him as a gunslick.”

“Watch him sometimes. His eyes see everything; no one moves without him seeing it. It’s so natural to him now, that he does it without thinking. No man gets that watchful unless there’s a need,” Steele said. “Also, notice when Shannon reaches for something, it’s always with his left hand. He keeps his right hand free—and never far from his gun.”

Magee was impressed. “I’ll be damned. I never noticed any of that.”

“In my business, you have to pay attention to folks, Doc. Sure, Reb don’t say much, but my guess is that he’s left a lot of gunsmoke along his backtrail.”

“Maybe instead of thinking of your age, I should have considered your experience.”

“It’s your experience I came to ask about today, Doc.”

“Oh? How can I help you?”

“I was wondering about Gertie Beauregard.”

“That was a terrible thing, Jack.” Magee bit his lip. “Such a shame. I mean she was a nice girl, loved by everyone who knew her.”

“Did she work for … with Clara?”

“She was a good girl, Marshal,” Magee said, his voice a little sharper than he intended. “She stayed at Clara’s; it was her sister, after all. But she wasn’t on the line. She was a stage actress, that’s how she came to be here. Her troupe did some shows here, at the Emporium and the Providence. Then their manager took out with all the proceeds and the cast was stranded.

“Gertie could sing, had a voice like an angel! She would sing at Clara’s for the men that were waiting their turn upstairs; and at the Emporium or Providence on weekends. She was saving up enough so she could go on to San Francisco.”

“And then she died?”

“That’s the size of it, Jack. It was a tragedy.”

“Do you think it was an accident?”

“I’ve heard talk either way.”

“Did you examine the body?”

Magee shook his head. “No, as I recall, I was in Santa Fe at the time. There was no doctor in town, so they just buried her. It was a big funeral, better than half the town turned out for it.”

“No one saw the body?”

“Carradine did; he was the only mortician in town.”

Humming a melancholy tune to himself, Hezekiah Carradine was brushing a freshly made coffin with varnish using swift, experienced strokes. He glanced up when Steele dropped by his workshop and waved Steele to a chair as he finished up his work.

“A pleasant surprise to see you, Marshal Steele,” he said, putting the paintbrush in a bucket of water. Screwing the top back on the mason jar holding the varnish, he asked, “I take it this isn’t a social call, sir?”

“I want to ask you about Gertie Beauregard.”

“A lovely girl, quite charming, Marshal. I dare say she was the prettiest corpse I ever worked on,” Carradine said, with a misty look in his eyes. “I can still see her lying there, she looked so sweet, like she had just fallen asleep and forgotten to wake up. Yes, sir, I did my best for her. She inspired that kind of passion in people. You just wanted to do anything you could for her.”

“Did she have any enemies?”

“Enemies? No, sir. Nary a one, Marshal. Not a blessed one!”

“Was her death an accident?”

Carradine looked away, staring at a row of unvarnished coffins lined along a back wall. “I can’t rightly say. I am not a doctor, you understand.”

“But you saw something suspicious?”

The undertaker nodded slowly. “Her neck was broken, as you’d expect from such a fall. But I thought there were bruises on her neck, like someone had tried to strangle her. But I wasn’t sure if that’s what caused the marks.”

“Did you report it?”

“I did. Jess Sorenson was marshal then. He started asking questions—and then he was killed in a shootout with Lorenzo Pike. That’s the feller you killed when you first arrived.”

“No one’s looked into it since?”

“Somehow folks got the idea that it wasn’t a healthy subject to talk about,” Carradine explained. “Are you going to look into it?”

Steele stood up. “I reckon I might at that, Mr. Carradine.”

The mortician jerked a thumb toward the just-varnished coffin. “I can save that one for you, Marshal. It’s right about your size.”

“Hope you didn’t have a premonition?”

“No, sir!” Carradine said, then winked and added, “But a good businessman plans ahead!”

 

24

It was late in the summer in northern Arizona when the days still grew unbearably hot but an uncomfortable coolness was born with each setting sun. Steele was up early, when the sky still groaned sleepily under a black blanket. It the desert country both dawn and dusk spring with a sudden fury, there was no gradual dimming or lighting of the sky; one moment it was nearly pitch black and then the sun slammed into your eyes.

There was still a morning chill when Steele left his office and turned south along Hell Street. This side of the creek was mostly asleep, but the saloons, brothels and gambling dens south of Twin Arrows Creek were still having a rousing good time.

A light was on in Marshal Bryant’s office, so Steele tapped lightly on the door and entered. Bryant finished feeding a log into the woodstove and used a poker to close the door.

“Up early, Jack.”

“A restless night, I guess. Saw your light and wondered if you had coffee on.”

“Be ready in a minute or two,” Bryant said, returning to his seat. “Pull up a chair.”

Steele glanced toward the cells, both doors were open, but Buford Tucker was stretched out on one of the cots.

“Drunk again?”

Bryant shook his head slowly. “He does so good for a while, and just when you think he’s a-gonna make it this time, he gets into that bug juice agin.”

Remembering his own battle against the bottle, Steele said softly, “It takes time; it’s a different journey for each of us.”

“You should’ve seen him before Gertie. You wouldn’t know it was the same feller. Tucker was always well-groomed, the first to lend a hand or offer help. He hardly ever touched a drop back then. Folks hereabouts kind of thought it fitting that Tucker and Gertie would fall for each other. You couldn’t find a nicer pair than them two.”

“I can’t imagine what he’s going through.”

Bryant crossed to the stove, lifted the coffeepot and began to pour two cups. “It’s like he’s trying to forget something.”

“Can’t blame him,” Steele said, accepting one of the cups. “It’s a hell of a thing to lose someone you love.”

A pang of guilt touched Steele’s heart and the image of Clara Beauregard drifted through his thoughts.

Bryant sat behind the desk; opening the top drawer he took out a box of sugar cubes and handed them to Steele. “You forgot these when you moved out, pard. Never cottoned to anything in my java, except maybe a nip of who-hit-John.”

“Folks look at me funny-like when I add my cubes, but let them stare, I say. I like it sweet these days.”

Bryant took a sip. “Strong enough to float a horseshoe! That’s cowboy coffee.”

“Now, what were you saying about Buford?”

“Mostly people drink for a good time, and then there’s them that drink out of loneliness or loss. Then some drink to forget something, or to keep from remembering,” Bryant explained. “Buford gets himself fixed up every once in a while, gets a job, cleans up. He’s a dependable worker, almost looks like his old self. But he always falls off the wagon.”

“Hopefully, he’ll right himself.”

“He was talking in his sleep, Jack. Most of it I couldn’t make no sense of, but he kept saying her name, and saying he was sorry.”

“Sorry?” Steele glanced toward the snoring man. “You think maybe he did it?”

“It just makes no kind of sense, Jack. Everybody knowed they was in love; they never argued or had hot words a’tall. I just don’t read the sign thataway.”

Steele set his cup on the edge of the desk. “That’s why I stopped by, Cull. I want to take a look at Jess Sorenson’s old files, notes and such.”

“You know what happened to Sorenson when he started asking questions?”

Steele nodded. “That little girl deserves justice, Jack, and I owe Clara that much.”

“I’ll rustle it up, pard,” Bryant said, as he raised his coffee cup in salute. “I’ll drop it off this afternoon.” As Steele started for the door, Bryant added, “And I don’t got to tell you to be careful, do I?”

Speaking over his shoulder, Steele said, “Being careful is how I got to live this long, Cull.”

In the short time he’d been in Bryant’s office, the town had come alive. Gene Albanese was sweeping the walk in front of his dry goods store, the door was open at the Two Guns Gazette and there was a steady ringing of hammer on iron coming from the rear of Wagner’s blacksmithery. A couple of loud railroad tracklayers were holding each other up as they made their way toward Big Bloke’s, singing loudly, if off-key, about “Brennan on the Moor.”

Steele glanced across Twin Arrows Creek, but turned away. The town was no longer his concern; he was a U. S. Deputy Marshal now. He was determined to break up the bandit ring preying on the Flagstaff stage and, as that seemed to involve Gratton somehow, it fit right into his thinking. He had nearly convinced himself that Gratton was involved in Gertie Beauregard’s murder, but now he wasn’t so sure. Why would Buford Tucker be sorry, unless he played a hand in her death? Everyone in town seemed to think Tucker was incapable of harming Gertie; but that didn’t make it so.

“Jack!”

“Howdy, Bet!” Steele could tell by the red-rimmed eyes and weary grin that Bet Thayer had been at the poker table all night. “Buy you breakfast?”

Thayer shook his head. “I just want to get to my room and crawl into bed. Arbuckle was riding his luck last night, and he damned near cleaned me out. He was due, though; I’ve been getting the best of him most nights.”

“There are three rooms upstairs at Tetlow’s old place. Move into one if you want.”

“Might do that, amigo,” Thayer nodded. “When you get a chance, stop by Clara’s place. Dixie Chalice wants to speak with you in private.”

“What about?”

“Damned if I know, Jack. I thought I was sparking her last night, until she started asking about you.”

“About me?”

“Don’t worry, pard, I gave you the big build up,” Thayer chuckled. “You’ll play hob trying to live up to the image I gave her; right about now she thinks you can whip your weight in wildcats, pin the ears back on a passel of grizzlies—all while roping a Texas cyclone!”

“Well, thanks, I reckon. But why the blarney? I thought you were interested in her?”

“Oh, I am. I’m going to do all I can to win her over,” Bet laughed. “But, if not me, I’d rather see her with you than that Gratton.”

“Is he that serious?”

“Dixie says he’s been dropping none-too-subtle hints about skypilots and jumping brooms.”

“I hope she can see through his act. He’s a brutal man. There’s nothing soft about that one.”

“Have a talk with her, Jack.” Thayer started to walk on, then paused and turned with a grin, “Oh, and feel free to give me the big build-up if you get the chance.”

As soon as he stepped into Big Bloke’s, a smile spread across Steele’s face; there was no mistaking the enticing scent and tasty sizzle of bacon.

“Grab a seat, Jack! I’ll bring you a plate—double bacon,” Nizhoni said gaily. “And some coffee to go with your sugar cubes!”

Yep, he thought, she knows me!

With slight irritation he noticed that a couple of railroad men were at his usual table, and he had few choices. He took a seat at the end of a long bench, on the left side of the room. There were three other customers on the bench, but all at the other end.

Two railroad men were at one of the smaller tables near the entrance, and another two-person table was occupied by a grizzled oldtimer, who was trying to keep his false teeth in as he chewed on flapjacks. He looked up and caught Steele’s eyes on him.

“Love the syrup, youngster,” he said with a grin. “Only it sticks to my store-bought chompers! You be glad you still got your own teeth, son.”

“Looks good, Pops. Can’t wait to dig into my own vittles.”

“That Big Bloke shore kin rustle up the grub,” Pops agreed. “Mebbe the bestest table I ever et at, unless it was old Porky Pines!”

Steele sat straight up. “You knew that old rascal?”

The old man paused as Nizhoni brought food to Steele’s table. After she left, he continued, “I should say so, youngster! I knew him back in ’44, when he first come west. Why back in them days, he couldn’t even make hot water! He was greener than a frog’s belly, by Gawd; but he was eager to learn and mighty fast at picking up whut he needed to know!”

“Did you teach him to cook?”

Pshaw!” the oldtimer laughed. “I couldn’t boil water my own self. It was an injun what did the cooking fer us that winter. He was a Ponca, good folks them Poncas. Anyway, it was Ponca Bill what taught old Porky.”

“I never heard anybody call him anything but Porky.”

“Let’s see now,” the old man thought for a moment. “His given name was Hiram, I think. Hiram Pines. But he could get pricklier than a passle of porcupines, so’s we just naturally started calling him Porky Pines.”

“Small world,” Steele commented as he used his fork to cut off a piece of flapjack and shove it in his mouth.

“Where’d you know him from, son?”

“Down Texas way. I worked for a cattle outfit around Pendencia Creek for a spell.”

The old man’s blue eyes twinkled with mischief, “Pendencia Crick, you say? I knowed some of them cowpokes,” he said with a straight face. “You know Windy Bemis or Dip Perry?”

Steele smiled. They were some of the owlhoots that rode for King Fisher. “Knew them both, Pops. Good men, they were.”

“Was Black Johnson around?”

Steele shook his head. “He wasn’t, but there was lots of talk about him.”

“He’s a bad one, Black is. He’ll kill a man like you’d swat a fly.”

“Why did they call him Black?”

“If you saw him, you’d know,” the old man grinned. “Powder burn covers most of the right side of his face. I heard he was part of that Pendencia Crick gang.”

“He was, but I heard Fisher run him off for being too bloody.”

“Whew! If you are bloodier than King Fisher, well, son, that takes some doing!” the oldtimer replied. “Was King still wearing them tigerskin chaps?”

“Once in a while he’d strut around with them,” Steele said. “He was killed about a dozen years back, in San Antone.”

“That was murder,” the oldtimer spat. “If it was anybody else, there’d have been an indvestygatun and charges filed,” he said. “But folks was skeered of King Fisher and Ben Thompson, and figured good riddance.”

They both went back to their own meals then, and Steele found himself wondering what Dixie Chalice wanted to see him about. He was a man, which meant he was just vain enough to think she might be interested in him. But, as pleasant as that daydream was, Steele was realist enough to know it was unlikely that a young beauty would have any romantic notions toward an over-the-hill gunfighter.

But was he broken down? He had come to lawless Two Guns and stopped the daily killings, something seven other marshals before him failed to do. Was it him that kept the peace? Or was enough of his old reputation still clinging to his trusty Colts, helping to cow some of the would-be bad men of Two Guns?

“See you later, youngster,” the oldtimer called, giving a wave as he walked out the door. On the way out, he passed Cullen Bryant coming in. Spotting Steele, Bryant veered to his table.

“The smell of the bacon is making my mouth water, Jack,” Bryant drawled. “It ain’t often a feller gets bacon.”

“If you ask nicely, Nizhoni might give you a double order.”

“He doesn’t have to ask at all,” Nizhoni said, as she appeared at their table. “I figure the lawmen in this town need to keep their strength up, so keeping you both well fed is part of our civic duty.”

“There might be someone with more civic pride, Nizhoni,” Steele smiled. “But there damn sure ain’t one prettier!”

“Go on with you, Jack,” she blushed. Winking at Bryant, she said, “Be right back with your breakfast, Marshal.”

“The reason I stopped by, Jack, was to give you a warning.”

“About what?”

“I was palavering with Forleo, over at the Providence; he told me that Wally Dalton was in there all night a-getting likkered up and a-telling any one that’d listen how he was a-fixing to call you out today.”

So there it was. Dalton had been walking wide-shouldered around town, wresting every minute of fame he could from killing Wes Wheeler, but that was old news now. Dalton needed a new victim and had, apparently, set his sights on Steele.

Steele said. He sipped his coffee. It was cold. “Where is he now?”

“Forleo said he left the Providence about twenty past two this morning. No telling where he’s at now,” Bryant said. “I just thought you should have fair warning.”

“Thanks, Cull. As the Cyclops said, ‘I’ll keep an eye out’!”

 

25

Several plucky chickens scratched the front yard at Wolfe’s Crossing, pecking at insects or an occasional corn kernel scattered every morning by Brigo. The big Mexican was standing on the side of the building, rinsing glasses in a water barrel. He dried them with a clean white cloth hung over his shoulder. Brigo was content to mind his own business, and everyone knew it; so cowboys riding owlhoot felt safe stopping by for supplies or a quick drink.

Brigo had a memory for faces and names, though he remained close-mouthed about who came and went. He saw the rider coming from the direction of Two Guns; the man was swaying a little in the saddle and Brigo thought he might be ill. The horse came closer and the rider was a thin, young man who wasn’t sick, just excessively drunk. Though he had never met the rider, Brigo knew from overhearing talk at his bar, that it was Wally Dalton. The Hashknife cowboys that often stopped by for a drink talked about him and how he fancied himself the last of the great gunfighters. They had held him in low regard until he had beaten Wes Wheeler to the draw.

Buenos dias,” Brigo said in greeting as he walked over to his front door.

“Howdy,” Dalton replied, slightly swaying in the saddle. He nearly fell dismounting his horse. “How’s for coffee?”

“Come in, senor. I have beef and tortillas, also.”

“Just coffee will do.” Dalton followed Brigo inside and dropped into the first seat, leaving his back to the door.

Brigo noticed that and slowly shook his head; Dalton might be quick on the draw, but he was no gunfighter, a gunhawk like Steele—or even Wheeler—would never make themselves such an inviting target. He poured a steaming cup of black coffee and brought it to Dalton. He knew, by the disheveled look and untamed hair, that Dalton had slept outside last night. Why was that, Brigo wondered?

“I can bring you a stiff drink, senor. It will help reduce the pain in your head.”

“Really?” Dalton looked up through red-rimmed eyes. “Awright, then.”

Brigo returned behind the bar, setting a glass atop it and reached on the back shelf for a bottle. A horse whinnied and Brigo peeked out the window to see a lone rider dismounting.

He was bringing Dalton his drink when the rider walked in, spurs jingling.

“How’s for some grub, Mex?”

Si. Have a seat,” Brigo said. “I have beef and tortillas.”

“Sounds good,” the rider replied. He dropped into a seat facing the door and hung his hat on the chair back beside him. “Coffee smells good, too.”

Brigo picked up a plate and walked over to the hearth; his face showed no expression, though he recognized the new rider. Gus Venable was a former lawman, before deciding there was more money to be made on the other side of the badge; he had taken part in train and bank robberies and had been a hired gun in the Johnson County War. A generally bad man, Venable had killed six men in straight-up gunbattles, and more than likely twice that number in other circumstances.

The Mexican served Venable his breakfast and coffee before retreating to his station, where he reassured himself by gently touching the shotgun he kept under the bar. Brigo was shrewd and wise in the ways of men, he wasn’t about to give Venable the slightest edge. Brigo had a knife tucked into his boot and had been known to get it into action fast.

“I’ll have me some more of that coffee,” Dalton said. The first cup had done wonders and he seemed much perkier than he had when he first arrived. “I’ll have some of those tortillas and a hunk of beef, too.”

Si, Senor Dalton,” Brigo said. He hurried toward the hearth.

Venable looked up at the name and he studied Dalton. “You one of them Kansas Daltons, boy?”

“Don’t think so.”

“I knew Grat and Bob,” Venable said. “I told them going into Coffeyville was a fool idea, but Grat was always headstrong and couldn’t be told anything. He was jealous of Jesse James and wanted to do something the James boys hadn’t.”

“My pa was Sam Dalton, from Abilene,” the youngster said proudly, as Brigo set a plate of food on the table. The Mexican returned to the hearth to fetch the coffeepot. “He was a gunfighter.”

“A gunfighter!” Venable slapped the table and howled in laughter. “That’s a good one, boy! That’s rich.”

They heard the clip-clop of approaching hooves and paused as two Hashknife riders entered the bar. They asked Brigo to bring them beer and took a seat across the room.

“My pa killed eight men,” Wally Dalton insisted.

“Maybe he did,” Venable admitted. “But I’d bet dollars to doughnuts not a one got it from the front.”

Dalton had started to raise a forkful of beef to his mouth, but stopped. Slowly, he lowered his fork. “What are you saying, mister?”

Bringing the coffeepot over, Brigo refilled Dalton’s cup. He glanced at Venable, “I want no trouble here, Senor Venable.”

The Hashknife riders glanced over. They knew the name and suddenly realized that they had walked into a dangerous situation.

“So you know me, Mex?”

“I recognized you when you came in.” Brigo set the coffeepot down near the coals and walked back behind the bar. He drew two frothy beers and brought them to the cowboys.

“What’s going on, Brigo?” one cowboy whispered.

“Much trouble, Senor Shannon.”

Brigo had mentioned Venable’s name in hopes of warning young Dalton who he was facing. But the name did not give Dalton pause; instead, it did the exact opposite. As a boy he couldn’t get enough of stories and legends about the shootists, mankillers and gunmen, and Dalton know the name of Gus Venable.

“There won’t be any trouble,” Venable said. “Hell, it ain’t no secret that Sam Dalton was a backshooting skunk. I’m just telling the boy the truth.”

“My pa never shot no one in the back, he didn’t have to, he was greased lightning!”

“He was greased awright—on who-hit-John every chance he got,” Venable said. He picked up his coffee—with his left hand.

“Folks respected my pa, and were afraid of him.”

“Well, now, I can’t think of a single person who was afraid of Sam Dalton. And respect? Not on your life, boy. Folks couldn’t get shut of Sam Dalton fast enough.” Venable took a swallow of coffee. “I don’t know what tall tales your pa told you, boy, but he sure enough told whoppers if you think he has anything more than a two-bit drunk.”

“You lie!”

The Hashknife cowboys, Shannon and Fuentes, turned and stared; they were out of the line of fire. They knew Dalton and they gave him no chance against someone the caliber of Gus Venable.

Venable’s eyes grew hard and cold. “Now that ain’t neighborly at all, boy. I only spoke truth. But, tell you what, I’m on my way into Two Guns to kill John Carrier Steele, and I’m feeling pretty good today; so why don’t you just apologize and we’ll forget this whole thing ever happened?”

Dalton stood up; his legs apart and his right hand hovering near his gunbutt. “I know all about my pa. He was a gunfighter—probably faster than you, Venable.”

Venable slowly came to his feet. “Folks didn’t tell you true, boy. Be a shame to die defending that no-account pa of yours. I bet the Mex even knows about your pa.” Keeping his eyes on Dalton, Venable said, “Tell him, Mex. Why don’t you tell him about Sam Dalton?”

Wally’s eyes were wild. “He’s lying, ain’t he, Brigo?”

“I am sorry, muchacho, but he does not lie,” Brigo said. “Su padre was just as Senor Venable said.”

“There you have it, boy. Now, you apologize and I’ll be on my way.”

Wally Dalton’s hand swept down and smoothly gripped the gunbutt; Venable was sure Sam Dalton’s son would be all-talk and he was caught momentarily offguard. That moment’s hesitation made all the difference. His gun slid into his hand and was coming level when Dalton’s first bullet slammed into his chest, turning him slightly.

Dalton’s second shot struck Venable’s right arm. The veteran gunman tried to execute the Border Shift, tossing his gun from one hand to the other, but before he could complete the maneuver Dalton had calmly aimed and fired a final bullet into Venable’s head.

Mi Dios!” Fuentes exclaimed. “You beat Gus Venable to the draw, kid!”

Shannon nodded in surprise. “Wouldn’t have believed it, if I hadn’t seen with my own eyes.”

“So, Brigo, you didn’t think too highly of my pa either,” Dalton snarled. “Well, maybe I’ll just—” Gun in hand, he turned toward the bar. He found himself staring down the twin barrels of a shotgun.

“Put it away, muchacho, and vamoose. One wrong move and I will have to dig two graves today.”

Dalton swallowed hard and carefully holstered his pistol. “I’m riding, Mex. But—”

Brigo eared back the hammers, and Dalton left his thought unspoken as he turned and walked out the door.

“You boys dig a grave for me out back of the barn and you can share this,” Brigo said. He held up a small diamond. What did he need a diamond for? He was not a slave to wealth; he had a beer when he wanted, a nice place by the river, where he could sit in the shade and braid his riatas. Brigo was content.

 

======

 

Chest out, feeling good, Seth Gratton was enjoying his morning jaunt down the boardwalk; he preferred his well-stocked new office at the Golden Nugget, but sometimes business required his attention back at the Pizen. As he neared Miss Clara’s place, he spotted Dixie Chalice seated in a chair on the porch and started toward her.

“Morning, Miss Dixie—” Gratton offered, his hat in hand. He froze when he saw Marshal Steele seated beside her. Because of an imitation Greek column blocking his view he had not noticed Steele.

“Oh, good morning, Seth,” she cooed. “I believe you know Marshal Steele?”

“Evidently not as well as you,” Gratton said, making no effort to keep the irritation from his voice. “Morning, Steele.”

“Howdy, Gratton! Fine day for a walk, isn’t it?”

“Sure,” Gratton said. He believed Steele was mocking him, sitting there calmly as if he owned the town! “Figured we’d seen the last of you when the council fired you.”

“It worked out for the best, Gratton. Now I’m free to roam the territory.”

“It’s a big territory,” Gratton replied icily.“You should start roaming.”

“Oh, I like it right here, for now.”

“We have an extra chair, Seth,” Dixie said innocently. “Won’t you join us?”

Gratton bit his lip to keep his anger in check. “Another time, Miss Dixie. I’m afraid I have pressing business matters to attend to.” He jammed his hat back on and strode off without a backward glance.

He was so angry, he was nearly shaking. Gratton knew that Steele had been rubbing it in; everyone knew Dixie was his girl! First it was that pugnacious gambler trying to horn in on his play, and now that murdering lawman! He should have chased Thayer off the first time he saw the gambler with Dixie; that would have sent a message. Well, it wasn’t too late, Gratton decided. He’d clear the field and make it plain that Dixie Chalice was his girl—and his alone.

Business was slow at the Pizen and that did nothing to boost Gratton’s foul mood. Was it his imagination, or were some of the railroad men drifting away?

“Howdy, boss,” Skinny called from behind the bar.

Gratton grunted and turned down the short hallway to his old office. He unlocked the door and stepped inside. He spotted it immediately; the folded piece of paper slipped under the back door to his office. That was how the messages were always delivered, so no one would see his source anywhere near him.

He picked up the note and tossed it on his desk as he stopped to pour himself a glass of bourbon. Sitting down, he took up the note. He smiled to himself; he’d recognize that handwriting anywhere, it hadn’t changed in years.

25000 cummin on 13th.

The thirteenth! That left less than a week! He’d have to get word to Gunnison. This was the kind of score they looked for; the stage would be bringing in $25,000 from Flagstaff!

Stepping back into the barroom he spotted Radbourn and waved him over.

“Yeah, Boss? What can I do for you?”

“Take a message to Gunnison. Tell him the 13th, on the way in,” Gratton whispered. “At the Summit. And hurry back, I may need you, Radbourn.”

Gratton went back to his office. He’d made arrangements for the hold-up, now he could focus on his other problem.

Steele would have to be taken care of, and soon. He thought of Radbourn, but dismissed the idea as quickly as it came to him; Ol’ Hoss was mean and ornery, but he was not half the gunfighter Steele was.

The trouble was that without Farnum, he had no one fast enough on the draw to call Steele out. Gratton spat as he thought of Wally Dalton. He’d been dropping hints to that Dalton kid, but the fool youngster didn’t seem to pick up on them.

Arbuckle? Gratton shook his head, he had other plans for Arbuckle. Gratton believed he could pay Arbuckle to kill Bet Thayer.

Leaning back in his chair, he put his boots up on the desk. He’d have to send for someone, a specialist. He had wired Tom Horn, but the “stock detective” was more interested in working for the big cattle outfits up north.

He had planned to use the Wright brothers against Steele, but those bumpkins proved useless. It was then that Gratton remembered Black Johnson.

 

26

Steele didn’t let his muscles relax until Gratton had disappeared from sight. He still was unsure what the singer wanted from him. Stealing a glance at her, he had to admit that she came in a pretty package.

“That was a little awkward,” Dixie said. Letting out her breath, she added, “I am afraid I may have brought some trouble your way, Jack.”

Steele shrugged. “When haven’t I known trouble? I think Gratton and I were already riding opposite ends of the trail to trouble.”

“Tell me about it?”

“It’s not pleasant talk for a lady.”

“I can handle it,” she smiled at him, “Don’t be fooled by the exterior, Jack; I am tougher than I look.”

“It’s just a hunch I’ve had ever since I first came to Two Guns. The more talk I’ve heard about Gratton, the more sure I am that we just might have a go at each other.”

“He looks like a brute. With a gun, you’d have the edge; but if it came to hand-to-hand fighting … I don’t like the odds.”

That assessment rankled Steele, though he thought the same thing. But no man likes to think he looks less in a lady’s eye.

“I beat his odds once before,” Steele replied shortly. “Besides, I’ve held my own in knuckle and skull fighting.”

Steele was a proud man and she knew she had stepped on his ego a little. “Oh, I didn’t mean anything, Jack. Only, Mr. Gratton looks so … so rough. But, I suppose, you’ve handled your share of rough men over the years.”

“I’ve done what needed doing,” he replied. “But, I’m still wondering why you wanted to see me?”

She turned her round, hazel eyes on him. “Most men would be content to have a lady ask them to come by and visit.”

“I’m confused, Dixie. I’ve seen you out with Gratton, and lately with Bet Thayer. I don’t see where I fit in.”

“You are perceptive, Jack. My interest in you isn’t romantic, I’m sorry to say. Though I hope you know Clara is extremely fond of you.”

He looked at his boots and mumbled, “As I am of her. It’s just—”

“No need to explain; I understand better than you think. My need to see you is strictly business.”

“Let me ask you, what’s your interest in Gratton?”

Dixie folded her dainty hands in her lap. “Well, he’s certainly interested in romance; he has not been too subtle at suggesting we get married. But my interest in him is professional, as well.”

“You think he can help your singing career?”

“Oh goodness, no,” she laughed, and her entire face lit up. “You see, Jack, singing isn’t my real job.”

Steele looked directly at her. “I suspected as much—not that you don’t sing well. In my profession you have to notice things that the average man might miss.”

“And what have you seen?”

“Your eyes are constantly moving; oh, most people won’t even notice it, but you don’t miss a trick. You always know who’s around and who’s doing what. I had a hunch you were the law, in some way. So, my guess is a detective?”

“With the Pinkerton Agency.”

Steele grinned. “Bet had you pegged as hunting a husband.”

“That didn’t scare him off?”

“Not a bit. Me and Bet been friends for years, Dixie. He’s a good man, and he’s a stayer. I also think he has been giving thought to settling down and starting a family.”

She smiled. “The way you talk about each other, maybe you two should get hitched!”

The comment drew a chuckle from Steele. “No, I was just thinking out loud, you could say. But, if you was to want a husband, you couldn’t do better than Bet.” Turning more serious, he said, “Reckon the Pinks didn’t send you out here for your health.”

“Our office was engaged by Wells Fargo, to put an end to the attacks along the Flagstaff line.”

“Which points to Gratton?”

“Isn’t that the conclusion you have reached?”

Steele nodded. “It is, but I can’t prove anything.”

“Singing was my cover and it explained away why I would be spending time around Gratton’s establishments. Basically, it allowed me to listen to talk and prowl around a little. I remember that talk about a missing $20,000 from that last robbery.”

Steele grew defensive. “You think I stole it?”

“No,” she said, giving his hand a pat. “I’m a pretty good judge of men, Jack. Besides, Clara swears by you—and she’s pretty savvy herself.”

“Where does that leave us?”

She glanced around, satisfied no one could overhear them, Dixie said, “I was able to get into Gratton’s office while he was out. He has a safe there—an older model, not very secure—and I took a peek inside.”

“You?” Steele was clearly shocked. “A yeggman?”

“A yeggwoman,” she said, with innocent eyes. “And only when necessary. I found a Washington Trust money sack—with $20,000 inside.”

“So that proves Gratton’s involvement.”

“It’s circumstantial, Jack. It wouldn’t hold up in court; he could say he found the sack and just used it to hold his earnings. Everyone knows he owns several businesses in town, and probably has made that much—and more.”

Steele sighed. “I knew it couldn’t be that easy. What’s your play?”

“The wheels are already in motion. Gratton gets tips on which coaches are carrying money and then relays the information to someone at Hashknife.”

Steele nodded, “Likely Gunnison.”

“I think so, too. Then Gunnison sends his boys out to stop the coach.”

“I think we’ve figured it the same way, Dixie. But how do we get proof?”

“Marked bills. Gratton believes the stage on the 13th will be bringing $25,000 to Two Guns. Unless I miss my hunch, he’ll tip off Gunnison and the rest will follow as usual,” Dixie explained. “That’s when you come in, Jack. I believe one of the robbers brings the loot to town where Gratton divides it. You raid him after the split is made and when he is found holding the marked bills, we have our man.”

“And when the Hashknife rider hands the rest over to Gunnison, we get both ends tied up in a bow.”

“Precisely, Jack.” Dixie agreed. “My partner is on the inside and will be able to tell us which Hashknife cowboys are involved.”

“You Pinks are on top of it, I must admit.”

“You know our slogan: ‘we never sleep’.”

“Bet will be sorry to hear that.”

Dixie blushed, then said, “You mustn’t tell him about me, I mean why I’m in Two Guns. If anyone finds out, we’ll never get this chance again.”

Standing up, Steele settled his hat on his head. “I’m your huckleberry!”

She stood up and gazed down the street for a moment. “Would you do me a favor, Jack? You might mention to Bet that it looks like a nice day for a buggy ride. I’ve never seen Canyon Diablo.”

Dixie turned and hurried back inside, leaving Steele standing alone on the porch, a smile creeping across his tanned face. It appeared to him that his old friend had the inside track after all. He took a step down the first stair when the door squeaked open behind him.

Expecting to see Dixie, he turned and was surprised to find Clara peeking out. Still dressed in her robe, her hair all asunder, Clara Beauregard stepped out onto the porch and softly drew the door shut behind her.

“Oh, Jack!” she said, her voice a soft sob. Streaks left by tears showed that she had been crying last night.

He rushed to her, sweeping her up tightly in his arms. “Clara! Are you alright? Has someone hurt you?”

“In a way, yes.”

“Tell me who, Clara, and I’ll read him from the Good Book, by Gawd!”

“Oh, no, you don’t understand, Jack. It was Wally.”

“Your son?” She nodded. He led her to the chair Dixie had just vacated and, taking the other, gently said, “What happened.”

“We had words last night before he went out; it seems that lately all we do is argue. He stormed out and … and … he didn’t come back home.”

“Oh, Clara!” Steele exclaimed. “You’re not so old that you forgot what young men are like. He probably went home with a girl.”

After his talk with Cullen Bryant he had gone from saloon to saloon along Hell Street, looking for Dalton and had not found him.

Hope shone in her emerald eyes. “You really think so?”

“Have you forgotten what I was like back then?”

“You were a handful,” she smiled. “A couple of handfuls, Mr. Steele!”

“I thought I had enough piss and vinegar in me to fill the Grand Canyon,” he laughed. “Young men think they know everything, until they grow up one day and realize that they didn’t know diddly squat! How old is Wally–I’d say about twenty?”

“Eighteen.”

“That’s a tough age. You’re young, probably still looking like a kid with peach fuzz on your chin, and you want the world to see you as a man. You’re trying to act tough, yet unsure of yourself; and all bets are off if a woman tries to tell you anything!

“The one thing a young man thinks he knows is that no woman can tell him what to do. You remember Abilene and Dodge? Hell, when you told me not to do something –even when I knew you were right—I did the opposite just to say I made up my own.”

“When I figured that out, it was much easier, Jack,” she laughed.

Steele grinned. “Took me a bit to catch on, woman! But when I did, I reckon I’d grown some, because I found out I liked doing what you wanted. Just to make you happy, that was all that mattered then,” he sighed. “I still remember the way you would look at me and smile, with that little smirk, like you pulled the wool over my eyes. I used to love that, Clara—just seeing that smile of yours, and knowing that I made you happy.”

“You always made me happy, Jack,” she said, as she gave his hand a squeeze.

“Damn it, Clara!” Steele leaped to his feet, his broad back to her. With his head bowed he added, “I wish—”

Rising, she took his arm and gently guided him around to face her. “It’s not too late. We’ve been foolish, Jack. Wasted a lot of years, and life doesn’t offer any guarantees.”

“You mean it?” He looked into her eyes. “After the way I hurt you, you’d give me another chance?”

“I understood you, Jack. I’ve always understood you, and I’ve always known that one day we would be together again.”

“But why? You could do much better than me, Clara.”

“You big, foolish, muleheaded son of a prairie dog,” she said, giving her head an unbelieving shake. She stood on her tiptoes she brushed his lips with a kiss. “For one reason, because I love you.”

He held her tightly in his arms. “I never stopped loving you.”

“The other reason is—”

“See you’re doing a lot of branding this morning, Steele.” Gratton’s voice was cold, hard and dangerous.

Gasping, Clara broke away and, clutching her robe closed, scurried back inside.

“If you ain’t careful, your loop might get too wide for your own good.”

His eyes blazing, Steele’s voice was deceptively soft, “And if you ain’t careful, Gratton, you won’t live to see that day.”

“Don’t think for a minute that I’m afraid of you, Mr. Widowmaker. I’ve made a few widows myself.”

“And widowers, too, I suppose?” Steele saw the shock in Gratton’s eyes and knew he had hit on something. “Gertie had friends, Gratton.”

Gratton’s eye bulged and his face turned purple with rage, but he wheeled and stomped away without a word.

Now there was no doubt in Steele’s mind; Gratton had something to do with Gertie Beauregard’s death. It seemed much more likely that what people thought was an accident, might instead be murder most foul.

But how to prove it?

 

27

“She said that?” Thayer was incredulous.

Steele grinned. “Those exact words.”

When the knock had come on his door at the Arizona House, Bet Thayer had been angry; after all, he had barely gotten three hours sleep after a long night at the tables. But when Steele brought word from Dixie, the drowsiness immediately fled from him.

“A buggy ride? And to Canyon Diablo, of all the damn crazy things,” Bet yawned. He had been so tired that he had fallen asleep as soon as he had taken his boots and gunbelt off. “Well, it does promise to be a nice day.” He idly rubbed his jaw. “I’ll have to shave.”

“Be on your guard, though. Gratton seems to have a burr in his tail over her,” Steele commented. “When he saw us talking this morning, I thought it might come to a shooting.”

Thayer splashed cold water from a basin onto his face. Reaching for a towel, he said, “That serious, huh?”

“It was. In fact he warned me against throwing a wide loop.”

“I guess he is mad as a wet hen.” Tossing the towel on the bed, Thayer sat down in a chair and began to tug on his boots. He halted in mid-motion and looked at the boot in his hand. “Could use a polish.”

“I swear, Bet! You take longer getting ready than my sister!”

Bet stomped into his boots. “I’ve known you for twenty-five years, and I never knew you had a sister.”

“Hilary, she’s living back east now,” Steele said. “She runs a small hotel, I hear. I think she sells beauty products to womenfolks, too.”

“If she could sell them to menfolk, she’d make a fortune on you alone!”

“Har, har. You just go and win this girl’s heart so I don’t have to keep a-bumping into you every time I come to a new town.” Steele opened the door, then turned. “By the way, I already rented a buggy for you. It’s that spanking new black one with the red lining.”

Marshal Jess Sorenson’s file on Gertie Beauregard’s death was on his desk when he returned to his office and Steele, pouring himself a cup of coffee, settled down to read. Gertie had been younger than Clara by nine years and had spent most of her time in Tennessee, before joining up with a traveling theater troupe.

He carefully read the former marshal’s official report, deeming Gertie’s death a tragic accident. The report had Buford Tucker finding the body; but remembering Gratton’s startled expression, Steele had other thoughts. What if Gratton had killed her? But why would Tucker take the blame? If he knew someone else had killed the woman he loved, wouldn’t he want justice for her? Maybe Tucker was intimidated by Gratton? Was he afraid to tell what he knew?

Steele put the report back among the other papers and contemplated the situation as he sipped his coffee. Was Tucker forced to take the blame? Maybe Gratton knew some secret about him? Tucker had turned to drink right after Gertie’s death; had it been a reaction to the sudden loss? Or was it from guilt? Tucker could be trying to make himself forget that he had betrayed his lover, by letting her killer go free?

Suddenly Steele bolted upright in his chair. There was something missing in that report. He picked it up and studied it briefly. The crime scene! No one had actually gone out to the crime scene; Tucker had brought her body back into town and reported the accident.

Likely there was nothing to see out there, but he was going to take a look. As he emerged from his office, he saw Jeff Bloom crossing the street hurriedly.

“Glad I caught you, Marshal,” the newspaperman said excitedly. “Just got a wire from Flagstaff. About a dozen Apaches left Camp Grant. All bucks, and last seen heading this way.”

Apaches! The Apache wars were over, though every now and then a small group of renegades would make trouble. A dozen Apaches could cause a lot of havoc!

“I’d better warn Brigo,” Steele decided. He was going out that way anyhow, and The Crossing was only slightly out of the way. Then he remembered Bet and Dixie; their buggy ride was toward Canyon Diablo—the route the Apaches favored when slipping around the country!

“I was heading over to Big Bloke’s,” Bloom said. “I’ll have Benito throw some grub together.” Bloom had come front Pennsylvania, but he had been out west long enough to understand that when Indians—especially Apaches—were raiding one had better be prepared to hole up someplace and wait them out.

Steele was riding at a canter within the hour. He had two six-guns on him, a third in his saddlebag, a Winchester and a shotgun on the horse. As he rode he let his eyes scan the horizon, circling buzzards would alert him to danger from far off. The tracks of the buggy were easy enough to follow; they were headed toward the mouth of the canyon.

There had been some clouds earlier in the day, but they had burned off now and it was growing uncomfortably hot, especially on the canyon floor.

He dismounted in the scant shade of an overhead rock to give his horse a breather. Using a wet cloth he wiped the horse’s nostrils, then let it drink from his hat. He thought of taking a swallow himself, but decided he’d wait a little longer. If he was trapped by Apaches water would be the one precious commodity he would lack.

He led the horse for half a mile before remounting.

“Okay, boy, let’s keep a sharp eye out for Apaches,” Steele said softly, as he patted the horse’s neck. He had chosen a tough, little mustang from the livery, knowing the animal could outrun most other horses and scramble up steep hillsides, if necessary.

Bet Thayer was no tenderfoot, he’d be watchful of his surroundings, Steele knew. At the first sign of Indians, Thayer would turn back for Two Guns. But what if he couldn’t? The next closest place would be Brigo’s. That old building had been the target for marauding renegades for decades and it was still standing. The adobe walls were thick enough to withstand bullets; the roof could burn, but that still wouldn’t provide the Indians with a way in, unless they could sprout wings and fly over the building. It was built with its back to a rock wall so it could only be attacked from three sides. It was difficult for one man to defend, but two or three could put up quite a fight.

Steele reined in at a point in the canyon where a rocky slide wound its way atop the mesa. I was a tough scramble, but Steele knew his mustang could make it. The way led to the stage route and he’d have a fast ride to The Crossing.

So far he had seen no sign of the Apaches. He turned his horse toward the narrow path, then halted as the sound of a distant gunshot echoed from the canyon. How far along he couldn’t tell, but the buggy tracks led that way.

Even as he started down the canyon he heard the flat report of a rifle and the answering bark of a pistol. Someone was in trouble.

The rocky, uneven floor of the canyon made a fullspeed gallop too dangerous, but Steele urged the mustang on as swiftly as he dared. He snaked the Winchester from its scabbard as he rode on. He rounded a slight bend and saw the dead horse. With shock he realized that there was a man pinned under it! He started forward, then halted as he saw an Indian rise up from behind a large rock across from the trapped man. The Apache was armed with an older model Spencer carbine; he was holding it ready for a shot as he approached the fallen horse.

Steele was almost four hundred yards away. By the Indian’s movements Steele realized that the Apache now knew his intended victim was trapped and helpless. The Indian straightened up and slowly drew his knife. The Apache intended to torture his prey.

Lifting the Winchester, Steele took careful sight and slowly squeezed off his shot. The Indian took a staggering step back, dropping the Spencer. Steele rode in closer as the Indian disappeared back behind the rock he had first emerged from.

Leaping from the mustang, Steele ran swiftly toward the rock and went around it ready to shoot. There was blood on the ground, pointing to a trail of the Apache’s flight. He had used what scant cover there was to climb from the canyon. Even as he stood there, Steele could hear a horse running off.

Returning to the dead horse, he walked over and looked into the eyes of Wally Dalton! The youngster had blood on his side.

“I think he was alone,” Wally said, grimacing in pain, but refusing to groan.

“Probably went back for the others.”

With some effort, Steele managed to help Dalton slide from beneath the horse. He glanced toward his mustang. The little horse was tough, but he wasn’t big enough to carry double—and, if they were forced to make a run for it, they wouldn’t stand a chance.

“They started chasing me up on the stage road,” Wally said. “I saw three of them. I came down here, hoping I might lose them, but this one followed me down. The others can’t be far behind.”

“Grab the canteen and the saddlebags,” Steele advised. “We need to fort up.”

Steele gathered the same from the mustang, also taking the shotgun, before he gave the horse a slap on the butt and sent it running, stirrups flying, toward Wolfe’s Crossing.

It would be a tough climb, but he saw the mouth of a small cave about halfway up the side of the canyon. Wally Dalton had lost blood and was weak. He helped as best he could, but Steele practically had to carry him up to the cave. He was brathing heavy before they reached the cave; leaving Dalton up there with his Winchester, the lawman scrambled back down for the saddlebags, canteens and the scattergun.

He was making a swift climb of it back to the cave when he heard Wally’s rifle crack. Glancing around, Steele glimpsed a young brave ducking for cover. Steele hastily scrambled up the last few feet. A bullet nicked the rock wall three feet from him. He reached the cave and threw himself inside as a bullet slammed into the rock he had just been on.

“Well, boy, we got plenty of bullets and grub,” Steele grinned. “I reckon we can give what-for!”

“Didn’t know anybody was around until that first shot. Hit me in the side. I grabbed for the saddlehorn as my horse started to run. I managed a shot at one, but missed. Then that redskin got my horse and I couldn’t kick free in time. I’m sure glad you happened along, Mr. Steele.”

“We better not start celebrating yet, Wally. The word is that a dozen Apaches broke out of Camp Grant,” Steele said as he peered out the cave. There was nothing in sight, but they were out there. The question was, Steele knew, how much time and effort they were willing to expend trying to dislodge them.

He glanced at Wally.

“Get that shirt off. I’ll bandage it up.”

The cave was about eight feet deep and tall enough for a man to stand in. A circle of blackened rocks indicated that people used this cave often. Suddenly, he realized this was the Love Nest where Tucker and Gertie had rendezvoused. There was a scattering of gunfire, but from their position the Indians couldn’t shoot straight into the cave. Still, the defenders had to be fearful of ricochets that could rip a man up something fierce.

“Luckily, it went clean through,” Steele said as he took a folded white shirt from his saddlebag and began to tear it into strips. “Other than loss of blood, you should be okay.” He fished a bottle from his saddlebag and tossed it to Wally. “This will help with the pain.”

“Thanks.” Wally took a drink, then another. “If you hadn’t come along, I’d be dead now, Marshal.”

“We aren’t out of trouble yet.” After bandaging the youngster, Steele took up his Winchester and crawled back to the edge of the cave. “If they wait until night, they could make it up here and rush us.”

“Ma will be some worried,” Wally sighed. “I just taken out and never told her where I was going.”

“She’ll just be glad to have you back.” Steele said.

He picked up his saddlebags and moved them toward the rear of the cave.

Finding pieces of bark and small sticks near the rock circle he soon brought a fire to life. Spotting a stack of wood against the back wall he went over to gather larger sticks. As Steele reached for a limb, something rolled off it. He picked up a small, round rock–only it was a pearl!

Searching, he found several more where they had fallen behind the woodpile. He thought of Marshal Sorenson’s file. It contained a single pearl.

The pearls showed that she had been inside this cave, and it pointed toward a struggle. Steele was certain now that Gertie’s death was no accident. But was the killer Seth Gratton or Buford Tucker?

Steele brought a cup of coffee to the wounded man.

“Thanks,” Wally said, his attention fixed on a large rock on the canyon floor. He set down the cup and took up the Winchester. “Saw movement down there.” He raised the rifle and carefully sighted down the barrel. His vigilance paid off as a young Apache peered around the rock. The Winchester jumped in Wally’s hand and the young Apache was never going to get any older.

“Good shot,” Steele commented. “Downhill, too.”

“I’ve practiced a lot,” Wally said with a crooked tooth grin. He set the rifle down and picked up his coffee. “I can usually hit what I aim for, especially if I have time.”

Steele nodded and said nothing. That was a good shot; so young Dalton could shoot. For a moment Steele had forgotten that this was the same gunman that had been going around town vowing to kill him!

After Wally’s shot the Apaches had grown more cautious and the day dragged along. In the Love Nest, one or the other kept a lookout at all times. The day was hot, but the cave provided relief from the uncaring desert sun.

“You think we have a chance?”

Steele nodded. “A good chance, I’d say. If my horse made it to Brigo’s, he’d know something was off. If there are any cowboys there, they’ll come a-fogging it up the trail.”

“That’s right,” Wally said, his voice holding high hope. “There were a couple of Hashknife riders there when I left. One of them was Reb Shannon.”

So there was a good chance help would be coming from The Crossing, and somewhere there was still Bet Thayer and Clara Beauregard.

“We just have to keep alert,” Steele said. “And stay alive until help gets here.”

They settled down to wait then, with Steele occasionally going to the rear of the cave to add a stick or two to the fire. He dug through his saddlebags and found some tortillas and jerky that Benito had packed.

“Might as well eat, Wally.”

The young gunman chewed silently on the jerky, keeping his thoughts to himself.

Meanwhile, Steele thought of the pearls he had found. Gertie hadn’t fallen while climbing up to the cave, as the official report concluded. She had actually reached the cave, and the pearls—from her broken necklace—showed that there had been some kind of struggle. The floor of the cave was too scuffed up from footprints left by past visitors to prove anything.

Steele spoke without turning his gaze from the mouth of the cave, “I’ve been hearing talk.”

Wally dropped his eyes, looking everywhere except toward Steele. “I was drunk.”

“You’re from a younger generation and maybe you didn’t know how it was in the old days. There are lots of oldtimers around town, so you can ask them,” Steele said. “Back then, if a man threatened to kill you, it was considered fair warning.

“”The next time you saw that man on the street, it was a given that you’d kill him on sight. Or he’d kill you. A man was responsible for his loose talk, drunk or no,” Steele explained.

“I didn’t mean nothing, Marshal.”

“I’m sure there are dozens of men around town that expect me to hunt you down and kill you, Wally.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Because of your ma,” Steele said, glancing at Wally. “She’s been a good friend to me, saved my life when I was about your age.  I got into a scrape with Kid Nichols.”

“I’ve read about Nichols. They said he was one of the best.”

“I killed him, but The Kid shot me up pretty good, too. Nobody cared much about me then, they figured it was for the best that two gunmen killed each other. It was your ma who had me brought to her room and she nursed me back to health. It was a close thing for a spell, but I pulled through. I wouldn’t have made it, if not for her.”

“She talks about you sometimes,” Wally said. “I didn’t know she done all that.”

“Your ma’s a special lady, Wally. She’s been a better friend than I deserved. We spent a lot of time together back then, before we drifted our own ways,” Steele said. “I didn’t know she had a kid until about eight years ago.”

“Did you know my pa?”

“Sam Dalton? I knew him. We ran together with the same outfit when we were young. He could use a gun.”

“When I was little, he’d take me shooting once in a while. It seemed like he never missed.” Wally paused a moment, before adding, “He left when I was six.”

“A gun’s not a toy, Wally. It’s neither good, nor bad; it’s just a tool in the hand of the man who decides how it will be used. Some folks think it’d be best if no one was allowed to carry guns. But there’ll always be folks who live outside the law, and try to ride roughshod over others. Sometimes it takes a good man with a gun to stop a badman with a gun.”

“Pa used to say that folks were killing each other long before guns were invented.”

“Reckon so. Why, in the Bible, Cain kilt Abel and he wasn’t packing no pea-shooter,” Steele said. There was a long pause before Steele spoke again, “You’re pretty handy with that hogleg, Wally. I hope you realize the responsibility that comes with it. I’ll give you the same advice that Wild Bill gave me; be careful that you don’t shoot the wrong man, or it’ll haunt you forever.”

“How do you know when it’s the wrong man?”

The sun was dipping behind some mesas to the west, for the moment leaving the western edge of the sky streaked in violet and pink.

“When a man wants to do something, he can come up with a hundred reasons to convince himself—and others—that he did the right thing,” Steele replied. He looked Wally in the eyes. “But when it’s wrong, you can’t lie to yourself. Way deep down in your soul, you’ll know.”

“Have you ever killed the wrong man, Marshal?”

Steele looked out toward the canyon, taking a long time before he replied. His voice was soft, “Yeah, kid. Once. I’d give anything to take it back. That’s the damnedest part of shooting a gun, kid; once you pull the trigger, you can never put that bullet back in the barrel.”

“I never killed anyone that didn’t deserve it.”

“We all tell ourselves that.” Steele slipped back to put more wood on the fire. He refilled his tin cup before returning to watch the canyon watch. “Your ma told me how smart you are, she said you used to get excellent grades in school. She thinks you could be a doctor or a lawyer if you applied yourself. Trust me, there are better ways to make a living than as a gunfighter.”

“But you’re famous, Marshal. Wherever you go, people have heard of you. Nobody remembers a doctor, and there’s no such thing as a gunfighting lawyer.”

“Have you ever heard of Temple Houston? He was Ol’ Sam Houston’s boy and he was hell-on-wheels in a gunfight. He was alawyer—and wore his guns into court.”

“I’ll have to think on that some.”

“Get some rest. I’ll take first watch,” Steele said. “I’ll wake you when I get tired.”

Wally slowly made his way to the fire and stretched out nearby. He was tired. He was also confused. He planned to kill this man, Steele, and yet he knew that the marshal had just saved his life! Why did he want to kill Steele? That was obvious; John Carrier Steele was the greatest living gunfighter in the west. Most of the great ones were long gone now; Hickok, Ringo, Billy the Kid, Sam Bass, Stoudenmire, Longley and Pink Higgins. All of them were dead and buried.

Of the shootists he had idolized as a kid, only two were still alive; Wyatt Earp was running cheap saloons, when not hunting gold in Alaska, and Bat Masterson was writing sports for a newspaper in New York!

Wally was sure that he was destined to join the ranks of the legendary gunmen. Why he had already killed Wes Wheeler and Gus Venable, both considered among the best gunfighters extant. He had thought about going to El Paso and calling out Wes Hardin, but some Selman feller beat him to it. Maybe he could still go and kill Selman? It would be something to be “the man who killed the man who killed John Wesley Hardin.”

If he wanted to be seen as a great gunman, there was only one way. It was simple logic: you can’t be the best, until you beat the best, Dalton told himself.

Wally knew that he could never be the best while Steele was alive. Steele—and Cole Farnum—would always be seen as his betters.

It was dark and cold when Wally awoke, and the fire was down to reddish coals. Using the wall, he managed to get to his feet. He swayed a little and leaned against the wall for support. Steele had brought some wood closer to the fire … Steele?

It took Wally’s eyes a moment to adjust before he could make out the figure of a man sitting to the left side, near the entrance. Steele had fallen asleep, his head was tilted forward. Wally decided that he felt well enough to take over the watch for a couple hours. He started to take a step and froze at the sound of a small rock falling, striking a larger rock below.

It was a small sound, yet seemed loud in the night. He slipped his gun out and waited. There was a narrow ledge extending for several feet on either side of the cave’s mouth; while the climb was steep, a good climber could manage it.

Straining his ears, Wally heard nothing. Maybe he hadn’t really heard anything, he told himself. What would Steele think if he could see me now, Wally thought? Dreaming of being the greatest gunman ever, while standing frozen in the dark, bullied by his own imagination!

It was all imagination, he decided. Hadn’t he heard someone say that Apaches don’t fight at night?

Then he saw it. He blinked his eyes and it was still there. A head peering around the corner at the entrance. Standing where he was, Wally knew he merged with the wall. There was a faint glint of metal in his right hand as the Apache took a silent step closer to the sleeping man.

Wally fired from the hip, the explosion of the gun boomed like a cannon inside the cave. The man he had shot cried out as he plunged from the ledge to the rocky canyon floor.

Even as Steele came awake, two more Apaches appeared in the entrance, coming from the right side. The twin barrels of the shotgun roared and one of the Indians gave a grunt as he reeled backwards into space.

The last Apache fired a hasty shot at Steele, missing by inches, and then was hit by Steele’s desperate shot. The Indian fell in the cave’s entrance.

A long moment passed and then they heard hoofbeats in the distance.

“I guess they’ve given up,” Steele said. “Throw some wood on the fire, Wally.”

The flames crackled and licked at the dry wood and the cave was again awash in dim light. Steele, who had not taken his eyes from the dead Indian, moved closer for inspection. The Apache was dead. He rolled the Indian over with his boot toe and watched him topple down into the canyon.

“I thought Apaches didn’t fight at night?” Wally said.

“As a rule they don’t; they believe the spirit of a man killed at night must wander in the dark forever,” Steele explained. “But there are always nonbelievers.”

 

28

The fight with the Apaches was, naturally, the hottest topic of conversation around; the Indians had first attacked The Crossing, but had made a costly mistake. Their attack was met by blistering fire from Brigo, Bet Thayer and two Hashknife cowboys; so the raiders were driven off, leaving three men behind.

They remained on guard at The Crossing, not knowing how many Indians were out there; but when Steele’s riderless horse showed up, they knew the Apaches had pulled out.

The Hashknife riders followed the stage road and the others went down the canyon. They met up at the Love Nest just as Steele was helping Dalton climb down.

If someone wasn’t talking about the Indian fight in Two Guns, then it was palaver about the other bit of news—Dalton’s killing of Gus Venable. However it was sliced, Wally’s stock had leaped three-fold in Two Guns. Oldtimers that had scoffed at him behind his back, now couldn’t wait to buy him drinks and listen to how he outgunned Venable. And, even Steele praised him for his quick action in the canyon.

“I can’t thank you enough, Jack,” Clara said. She lifted her glass for a toast. “You brought my son back to me.”

They were sitting in a private box on the second floor of the Emporium, a small table in the middle and two comfortable chairs on either side. A bottle of wine and a pot of coffee were on the table.

“I’m just glad I could help,” Steele said, raising his coffee cup to tap Clara’s glass. “I tried to talk to him about going to school.”

“Did it make a dent?”

“Not so you’d notice.”

“Sometimes he can be as stubborn as his father.”

“I don’t remember Sam Dalton being particularly stubborn,” Steele replied. He took a drink of coffee before setting the cup on its saucer. “He always seemed like the sort to go along with any damn fool plan.”

Mayor Garza and his wife stopped by to chat briefly, before moving on to the next box. The Emporium was slowly filling up as the crowd grew restless to hear the town’s latest sensation, the singing of Little Willy Gillmon.

“I just heard that Gratton has already signed Willy to perform exclusively at the Golden Nugget,” Steele commented.

Clara put a hand to her mouth. “Oh, no! Where does that leave Dixie?”

“I’m not sure,” Steele said. “But I think she’s got what she came for.”

“I hope so,” Clara nodded. “When she first got here, I was more than willing to help her. I know Gratton was involved in Gertie’s murder. I figured if we couldn’t get him for that, then the robberies would work just as well. Just so he goes to prison.”

“Finding Gertie’s pearls prove that she didn’t fall climbing up to the cave. But it doesn’t pin anything on Gratton. I’ve got to get Tucker to talk,” Steele said grimly. “He knows more than he’s said.”

“But he loved Gertie so much. I can’t believe he’d hide anything.”

Leaning forward in his seat, Steele asked, “Was there any connection between him and Gratton? Anything you can recall?”

“No, nothing,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t recall ever seeing them together. After he left Hashknife, Buford worked at the bank as a teller briefly before working hard to build his own spread up. He was trying to sell it so he and Gertie would have money to move to San Francisco.”

“I didn’t know he owned his own place.”

“Nice place, it was. It was on the way to Prescott. If he hadn’t … didn’t … start drinking, he could have built something really fine.”

“What happened to it?”

“Sold it,” Clara said. “A rancher, nice man, too. His name was Bell. He comes to town once in a while. Mostly, I hear, he works his range and keeps to himself.”

The night’s entertainment began and the muttering died down as the emcee introduced Willy Gillmon, a young singer that had made a major splash in the mining towns of Bodie and Virginia City; it was rumored that he was going to appear in a play starring the legendary Maurice Barrymore.

When the curtain dropped the crowd thunderously called for an encore, and then another.

“He is quite good,” Steele said, as he took Clara’s arm and guided her toward the door. “I think he’s going to be the next Edwin Booth.”

“He is talented,” Clara agreed. “Did you notice who Gratton was with tonight?”

“Dixie.” Steele’s voice had an edge to it. “I’m not sure what she’s up to.”

“She may not know how to break it off,” Clara suggested. “I did tell her about Gertie.”

“All she has to do is say the word to Bet, and he’d run Gratton off.” He held the door open as she stepped out onto the walk. “Do you want to catch a late dinner at Big Bloke’s?”

“Oh, I’d better get back to the girls. Another time, okay.”

They walked down the walk together, until they reached Clara’s place. She gave Steele a kiss on the cheek and went up the stairs and disappeared inside.

“You look like a man doing a lot of thinking, Jack.” Bet Thayer stepped from the alley between two buildings.

“I thought you were working?”

“Took a few hours off. I wanted to see this kid that all’s the fuss about.”

“What’d you think of him?”

“The kid can work a song, all right enough. Lute told me Gratton offered the kid a contract?”

“Heard that.”

“Wonder what that means for Dixie,” Bet said. “Maybe, if she’s out of a job, she’d be ready to leave.”

“Now who’s doing the serious thinking?”

“It is serious, Jack. I’m tired of living this type of life. I’m ready to settle down,” Thayer dropped his cigarette and rubbed it out with his boot toe. “I’m thinking of asking for her hand.”

“I know what you mean, Bet. Been having similar thoughts myself,” Steele said. “But, then I remind myself that I’m just a shootist. What do I have to offer Clara?”

Thayer tapped his friend’s chest, “It’s in there, amigo.”

“You got a minute, Bet? I was going to grab some grub, and I’d like to talk to you about something.”

“Sure, I can let McGinnity wait a bit.”

Steele had been afraid that Bet had seen Gratton with Dixie and was itching for a showdown, but the gambler’s joviality showed that he had no idea of their presence at the theater.

That changed as they walked into Big Bloke’s.

Gratton was seated at a table in the center of the room, across from Dixie. Bet’s face darkened and he absently brushed his coat back, clearing the way for a fast draw.

“Take it easy, Bet” Steele whispered. “It’s just business. She told me that’s her only interest in him.”

They stopped at Dixie’s table; she greeted them with a warm smile. Gratton scowled.

“Still around town, Steele? I figured you’d start your roaming by now.”

“Oh, I’ve done a little poking around, Gratton. Just trying to get the lay of the land.”

“The word’s around that the Dalton kid is still gunning for you,” Gratton said, with a note of satisfaction in his voice. “He took out Wheeler and Venable, maybe he’s got your number, too.”

“I hadn’t heard that one, Gratton.”

“Speaking of rumors,” Bet interjected. “I hear you’ve hired that Gillmon kid to sing at the Nugget.”

“What?” Dixie seemed surprised. “Is that true, Seth?”

“I can explain, Dixie,” he said. He shot angry looks at Steele and Thayer, ‘If these gentlemen will excuse us?”

Gratton looked into Dixie’s eyes and saw fiery passion blazing at him. He knew he’d made a mistake, but confident of victory, saw no reason his smooth tongue couldn’t turn it around. For Dixie Chalice, it required all of her acting skills to appear angry, when she was really delighted. She had been trying to think of a way to break it off with Gratton, a way that wouldn’t get her killed; and now it was dropped right into her lap. She could break up with him and his male brain would ascribe it to her being a temperamental woman; and he’d convince himself that she’d “come to her senses” in a few days. But in a few days Seth Gratton would be in jail.

“I can explain, my dear,” he began, with a soft smile and honey-dripped words. “It isn’t proper for a man’s wife to work in such an unsavory environment.”

“First of all, Mr. Seth Gratton, I’m not your wife—”

He lifted his hands up, palms outward, “A minor detail, Dixie. One that can be rectified immediately. I propose a merger between us.”

“What type of merger?”

“Look, I’ve made enough money to never have to work again, and I can support you in grand style,” Gratton continued. He flashed a confident smile, “We could spend our days travelling the world, Dixie; we could visit Paris and Vienna, or go to the Far East. We can go anyplace we want!”

Her eyes were wide and she stared at him dumbfounded. “Is this a proposal … of marriage?”

“Well, I admit I’m not very good at it,” Gratton said. “I’ve never done it before. But, then, I’ve never met anyone like you before, Dixie. I’ve been thinking of settling down, getting away from the west and all of its … violence.” He managed a slight shudder as he said it. “This is no life for you, Dixie. You should be feted, treated like a queen. And I’ve always wanted to tour the continent. So, yes, for what it’s worth, this is a marriage proposal.” As he finished speaking he reached into his jacket pocket and took out a gleaming sapphire brooch. “This is for you, my dear. It’s a mere token of my affection, and a sample of the kind of life you’d have with me.”

“It’s beautiful,” Dixie said breathlessly. For a moment she seemed to forget who gave it to her.

Gratton leaned across the table and pinned it to her dress. “Not half as beautiful as you.”

She traced the jewel with her finger before looking up, “I don’t know what to say.”

“I’d guess that ‘yes’ might be an appropriate response,” he said, his smile more forced.

“I don’t know, Seth. I have to think about it. I’d have to give up my career and all. It’s such a major decision,” Dixie said. “I wouldn’t want to make a mistake.”

“It would never be a mistake, Dixie,” he assured her. “I’ve made a life out of avoiding mistakes.”

“I must think about it, Seth,” she replied, gently patting his hand. “Give me a few days.”

“Okay,” he agreed reluctantly. “I’d best walk you home now; I’ve got to get back to work.”

“I’m going to stay here and visit with Nizhoni a bit; you know, girl-talk.”

As he stood up, Gratton glanced toward the back of the restaurant and his eyes met Thayer’s. “Sure, girl-talk. Or is it that two-bit gambler? Maybe someone ought to teach him to stay away from another man’s girl.” He looked down at her. “I wonder how you’d like him all mussied up? He wouldn’t be no pretty boy then.”

As soon as the door closed behind Gratton, Bet Thayer was beside her table.

“Is everything alright, Dixie? I’m sorry for blurting out what I did.”

“That’s quite alright, Bet. I’m actually glad you did.”

“Steele and I were just about to have another cup of coffee,” he said. “Would you care to join us?”

“I would, thank you.”

Nizhoni brought an extra cup to the table and chatted briefly before returning to the kitchen.

“The Flagstaff stage comes in two days,” Dixie said abruptly. “Is everything set, Jack?”

“I’m ready. Cullen is coming with me,” Steele replied. “I haven’t been able to find Cole.”

Bet glanced from one to the other, clearly in the dark about what they were talking about.

“Are you planning to hold up the stage?” he asked meekly.

Steele laughed. “No, Bet, we’re planning to stop the stage holdups.”

“I think we better fill him in, Jack,” Dixie whispered.

“We believe that Gratton is behind the stage hold-ups, but we can’t prove it. But—if we could catch him with his hand in the pot …”

“Gratton believes the stage is carrying $25,000,” Dixie said. “But the bills are marked.”

Thayer folded his hands on the table, “Okay, I understand all that. But—” he looked at Dixie—“what is all this ‘we’ talk?”

“I’m a Pinkerton agent. That’s why I was trying to get close to Gratton,” Dixie explained. She touched her brooch, “I guess it worked too well, he proposed to me tonight.”

“He what? Why, that low-down polecat—” Bet exclaimed.

Steele’s sharp tone cut Bet off in mid-sentence. “He gave you that?”

She smiled. “He did. It really is quite lovely.”

“That’s the evidence we need to tie him to Gertie Beauregard’s murder,” Steele said.

“What? Are you sure?” Dixie wondered.

“Take a look at the photographs in the Gazette’s window. Gertie is wearing that brooch in one,” Steele explained.

“Let’s go get him now,” Bet suggested.

Dixie set her cup down. “Not yet. We still want him for the stage holdups.”

“And as an accomplice in the death of Curly Kissick,” Steele added.

“So what did you need Cole for?”

“After the robbery, the bandits send someone with the money into town to contact Gratton,” Steele explained. “I need someone to keep an eye out, to let me know when Gratton has the money.”

“I’ll do it.”

“Oh, Bet, it’s too dangerous,” Dixie argued. She took hold of his hand. “Gratton hates you! He may have you killed!”

“I can take care of myself, Dixie,” Thayer assured her. He looked her in the eye. “This will be my last gamble. After this I plan to settle down, start a family.”

Dixie raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Did you have anyone in mind?”

“Darn tooting!” Bet grinned. “She’s the prettiest Pinkerton agent you ever saw.”

She gave his hand a squeeze. “I like the sound of that.”

The door to the restaurant was yanked wide open and the enormous bulk of Skinny Munroe filled the doorway. He walked to the center of the room and slowly took off his apron.

“I ain’t heeled, if you use a gun, it’s plain murder,” he announced loudly. He stared directly at Thayer.

“Now, see here, Skinny,” Steele said, standing up. “We’ll have no trouble.”

“I ain’t a-hunting you tonight, Steele,” Skinny bellowed. “I come to teach that runt a lesson about romance—and how love can sure hurt sometimes!”

Bet stood up, he was at most five-feet, five inches tall and weighed one twenty soaking wet. Skinny was four inches over six feet and weighed a good two-fifty.

“It’s my fight, Jack.”

“No!” Dixie tugged at his sleeve, “You can’t! He’ll kill you! Don’t you see? Gratton sent him to kill you.”

“Mr. Gratton’s got nothin’ to do with this here,” Skinny said. “I never did cotton to no fancy-dressed nancy boy.”

“We’ll see what you’ve got,” Bet said. He took his jacket off and carefully folded it. He turned, but Steele stepped in front of him, facing Skinny.

“This is law business, Bet. Cull and I got a sort of mutual understanding to back each other’s play.” Steele unbuckled his gunbelt and set it on the table. “This is his bailiwick and seeing how he ain’t here, I’ll handle it.”

Skinny grinned wickedly. “Have it your way, Marshal.”

He swung a ponderous right hand, but Steele easily stepped aside and countered with a straight right to the mouth. The blow didn’t even slow the big man. The behemoth slogged forward, fell for a left feint and took an uppercut that rocked him. Keeping the advantage, Steele landed a swift left-right combo, feinted again and then split Skinny’s lip with a thunderous right. Skinny stopped in his tracks and grunted.

“So you can fight some, little man.”

Though he was two inches over six-feet and weighed just over two hundred, Steele looked tiny next to the big bruiser. Skinny charged and Steele avoided a left, but a right bounced off his skull and stunned him momentarily. Before he could recover the bartender landed a roundhouse that staggered Steele. He threw up his hands in desperation as Skinny charged in. A blow to the belly and Steele felt the wind go out of his sails. Skinny set himself and landed a driving right hand. Steele reeled backwards, coming up hard against the wall. Skinny drew back a beefy fist and drilled a hole in the wall as Steele managed to duck under it.

As he stumbled past, Skinny slammed a bruising elbow to the back of Steele’s head.

The gunfighter went down and made no move to block a vicious kick in the ribs. He got partly to his feet when Skinny’s knee collided with his face, sending him sprawling across the floor.

The big man gathered himself, intending to leap into the air and crush the life out of Steele. Bet Thayer smashed a chair across Skinny’s back.

Skinny turned around and smiled malovently. “That the best you can do, nancy boy?”

Bet launched himself forward. With an almost bored backhand, Skinny knocked the gambler off his feet.

Bet started to get up, but the brawny bartender slammed a chair over his back.

“Looks like I’m the king around here!” Skinny roared. “Now I’m a-goin’ to finish you sidewinders off!”

The kitchen door flew open and all seven-feet and nearly four hundred pounds of Big Bloke rushed forward. The giant Navajo grabbed Skinny’s shoulder and spun him around.

“Guess again,” Benito said, as he nailed the brawler with a chopping right square on the chin.

Skinny backed up, his eyes glazed over. He spit out two teeth. He wiped the back of his hand against his bloodied mouth.

“You just made the biggest mistake of your life, redskin!” Skinny warned. “I been wanting a crack at you!”

“Here’s your crack,” Ben said, breaking Skinny’s nose with a jarring left. “Ain’t you heard, biligaana tso? Redskin is offensive!” Ben punctuated his sentence with a looping right the crashed against the side of Skinny’s head, dropping him to the floor.

Ben stepped back as Skinny got slowly to his feet. Skinny was hurt, but still confident in his own strength. He moved forward, but the huge Indian was shockingly fast and stopped Skinny in his tracks with a telegraph pole of a right. Then, ducking suddenly, Benito scooped the bartender up high into the air and hurled him through the front window.

“And don’t come back,” Nizhoni shouted as she threw his hat out the opening after him.

 

29

Cullen Bryant broke open the shotgun and shoved two slugs into the double barrels. Setting the scattergun on his desktop, he proceeded to take out his pistol and spin the cylinder.

He glanced worriedly at his new deputy—Wally Dalton. “This could be a tough go, kid.”

“Gratton ain’t so tough, Marshal,” Wally said carelessly. He had taken to wearing two guns, though he was strictly righthanded. “If any of that crowd wants trouble, they’ll get a bellyful of lead,” he chuckled, patting his gunbutts. “I’ll make them forget Wild Bill!”

Frowning, Bryant dropped his Colt back into its holster. “There’s to be no shooting if it can be helped. We want Gratton alive.”

“It’s up to him. He gives me cause and—”

“You’ll do what I say!” Cullen snapped. “I’m the law around here.”

Wally shrugged. “Don’t get a burr under your blanket, Pops. I’ll follow your lead.”

Bryant bit his lip; he had not wanted to deputize Wally Dalton, but there was no one else. Word had come that a Hashknife rider had secretly visited Gratton at the Pizen, entering through the rear door. Gratton had now returned to the Golden Nugget, where his safe had been moved. He had the money, and now was the time to strike.

Steele had been beaten severely by Skinny Munroe, and was still under Doc Magee’s care; and Cole Farnum seemed to have left Two Guns. There was no one else with nerve enough to tackle Gratton’s outfit.

Judge Akeley had sent a wire to Prescott, hoping to reach Commodore Perry Owens, but there had been no response.

“Let’s go,” Bryant said, cradling the shotgun. “I’ll get Gratton; you just keep his pack of dogs off my back.”

The marshal led the way, walking down the boardwalk with a purposeful stride; Wally was behind him, a wide grin on his face. His prowess with a gun was gaining him respect and Judge Akeley, Mayor Garza and Bryant had all come to beg him to take the badge. At least in his mind they begged.

It erased the insult of being fired by Steele and then overlooked by the town council when it hired a new badge-toter. They needed him; and next election they’d remember that—he’d make sure to remind them.

A couple of railroad men staggered from the Pizen, arm-in-arm as they headed across the street to the Providence; as Wally passed the alley between the Lucky Lady and the Gem he noticed a couple of dogs snarling and snapping at each other.

A cowboy came down the stairs of Miss Clara’s and turned to look curiously for a moment at the grim-faced lawman and his nonchalant deputy. Realizing the potential for trouble, the cowboy wisely headed in the opposite direction.

The Golden Nugget was a two-story structure, generously decorated inside with red cherry bars, ample lighting and several large mirrors, including a full-length one—with a frame boasting naked women in various, strenuous poses—behind the main bar in the rear of the room. There was a smaller bar, also cherry, to the right; beside it a wide stairway that led to the second floor, which housed three roulette wheels, a like number of faro tables, a dozen poker tables and two chuck-a-luck dice games. A narrow hall at the top of the stairs led to the right, where Gratton’s office was located, as was the dressing room for the saloon’s star performer.

Bryant started up the stairs and the nearest faro dealer looked up.

“Looking for someone, Marshal?”

“Stay out of it, Bestwick,” Bryant said.

Wally Dalton stationed himself at the top of the stairs as Bryant continued down to Gratton’s door. Without knocking Bryant threw the door open.

Seth Gratton’s glass was halfway to his lips when he found himself staring into a shotgun.

“What the hell is this, Bryant? If this is some kind of joke, by the Lord Harry, I’ll—”

“No joke, Gratton. You’re under arrest.” Bryant motioned with the shotgun for the saloonowner to stand up. “You robbed your last stage.”

Gratton slowly stood up. “You’re daft, man! I’m no road agent.”

Bryant moved to one side of the door, “You first, Gratton. Nothing funny, or I’ll turn this street howitzer loose on you.”

“Take it easy with that itchy trigger finger.” Keeping his hands in plain sight Gratton moved toward the door. “You’ll regret this, Bryant.”

“Quiet, and keep a-walking,” Bryant warned. “Else you’re liable to have dinner with Ol’ Scratch tonight!”

They were halfway down the stairs before anyone noticed. The saloon fell silent as Gratton came down the stairs, arms half-raised, followed by Bryant with his scattergun pointed squarely at Gratton’s back. Wally came last, his eyes sweeping the room with a taunting challenge.

“Hey, what is this?” Radbourn demanded, pushing through the crowd to confront the marshal. “I think you better let him go, Marshal.”

“He’s under arrest, Radbourn,” Bryant replied. “So pull in your horns.”

“Maybe I don’t aim to step aside.”

Wally stepped to one side, keeping Bryant and Gratton out of range. “I hope you don’t, Hoss.”

Radbourn saw the badge. “What is this? You a lawdog now?”

“I’m here so you boysdon’t  get rambunctious,” Wally said proudly.

“You ain’t so salty, kid.”

“Make your play,” Wally smirked.

Radbourn licked his lips, he dearly wanted to try the kid, but a little voice in his head warned him against it. Dalton had been good enough to take out Wheeler and Venable, and Radbourn knew he wasn’t in their league. He backed off, keeping his hand away from his gun.

“Move it, Gratton,” Bryant said.

Wally backed to the door. “Last chance, Radbourn.”

“Another time, kid.”

 

======

 

Steele opened his eyes to a darkened room, with curtains drawn. He blinked several times but everything appeared hazy, like he was seeing two blurred images of everything. He saw the cabinet, knowing that its shelves were filled with assorted bottles, vials and packets. On either side were bookshelves holding books of various sizes and widths. They all merged into one, big gray mass in Steele’s eyes.

He felt his waist and his guns were gone. Steele attempted to sit up and the room spun uncontrollably. With a sharp gasp, he fell back on his pillow and closed his eyes. He knew he was at Doc Magee’s; how long he’d been there, he couldn’t remember. It was so hard to focus his memories! Gradually he became aware of soft voices coming from the outer room.

“Will it be permanent?” It was a woman’s voice, and it sounded concerned.

“I just don’t know, Clara.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me, Doc.”

A chair creaked. “I’m sorry, Clara. It’s patient confidentiality.”

“It’s his eyes, isn’t it? Don’t look so surprised, Doc. I’ve known him longer than you. I see how he squints to read, though he tries to hide it. It’s bad, then?”

“He’s been losing his sight for some time, Clara.”

“Will he go blind?”

“Possibly. This head trauma won’t help. He’s awakened a couple of times, but hasn’t been able to see clearly. Maybe he never will again.”

Clara fought down a sob. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do, Doc. I want to move him to my place. I can take better care of him there.”

“I’ll let you know when as he comes out of it.”

There were soft footsteps, a door opened and clicked shut, and then it was silent. The chair gently creaked, a rocking chair. Somewhere along the line Steele fell back to sleep.

He saw the savage slash of lightning, but the distant rumble of thunder was drowned out by the crashing of blazing six-guns; he held one in each hand, spinning, ducking and firing all around him as one gloomy shadow after another slowly crumpled into the muddy street.

Then he was alone, facing a dark menace on the distant boardwalk, a fierce thing with fiery, red eyes. He tried to lift his gun, but his movements seemed so slow—the faster he tried to move, the slower he became. He saw the red-eyed demon’s gun swinging up, spitting its deadly orange flame—and he knew he was going to die.

“No!” he screamed, rolling restlessly in the bed. “No!”

There was a hand shaking him. “It’s alright, Mr. Steele. You’re safe.”

“Huh?” His eyes opened slowly, his breathing was ragged and he felt as if he had made a great exertion. He saw a woman’s face, slowly the haze drifted away and he saw it was Mrs. Magee. “What happened?”

She was mopping his sweaty brow with a damp cloth. “You were having a nightmare. It’s okay now, just relax and take some deep breaths.”

There were hurried footsteps on the stairs and Doc Magee came into the room.

“He’s okay, Joe,” Mrs. Magee informed her husband. “Just another bad dream.”

Doc came over to the bedside. “How are you feeling, Jack?”

“Weak as a kitten, Doc.”

“How’s your vision?”

“Good as ever,” Steele said. There were moments when all the fog cleared and he could see well enough, but sometimes the images grew fuzzy. “How long have I been here?”

“Four days now,” Doc replied. “You took quite a beating. Do you remember anything?”

“Yes. It was Skinny Munroe,” Steele recounted. “He came after Bet and I tried to stop him. I remember fighting with him, but then suddenly things went dark.”

“He slammed your head against the wall, gave it a good pounding. Tell you the truth, Jack; when you first came in, I didn’t think you’d make it.”

“Reckon, having a thick head finally paid off, Doc.”

“Clara’s been worried sick about you,” Magee said.

“She’s been here every day,” his wife added.

“She wants you to move over to her place, so she can look after you,” Doc continued. “That’s a good idea. Until you’re feeling more like your own self.”

“Help me up, Doc.” Magee helped him to sit up and he closed his eyes as a wave of dizziness washed over him. Finally he was able to steady himself and opened his eyes. “I’ll get a few things from my room first.”

 

30

 

The bank had only one teller; the window where Harlan Kincaid usually worked was closed. There was an elderly woman at the one open window, and a pair of railroad workers having an animated conversation off to the left side of the room.

Dixie Chalice crossed the room, toward the half-open door marked “President.” Mitch Hall was sitting behind his opulent desk, poring over paperwork scattered in front of him. He looked up as Dixie gently rapped on the door.

“Come in, Miss Chalice,” Hall said affably. Usually grumpy, even the stoic banker came alive in Dixie’s presence. “Well, you were right.”

“We have Gratton,” she said, taking a seat before his desk. “But with the marshal banged up, we weren’t able to raid Hashknife.”

“I see.” Hall folded his hands on his desk. “So what’s next?”

“I have been in contact with Commodore Perry Owens. I asked him to take Gratton to Prescott. There’s a safer jail there. He should be arriving any day.”

“Good, good, Miss Chalice. I’m always glad to help the Pinkertons. I trust this will put an end to the stage robberies?”

“It should,” Dixie smiled. “Without Gratton, the Hashknife gang won’t be tipped off to which stages to hit.”

“What I don’t understand is how they could have known so much,” Hall said, shaking his head.

“I noticed that Mr. Kincaid is out today. Is he ill?”

Hall threw up his hands. “I have no idea. He hasn’t shown up for two days. I sent a boy to his house, but he said no one was there. I don’t know what’s going on.”

“I had some of our people do a check on Kincaid, based on what information you gave me. It seems Harlan Kincaid was an inmate in the New York penitentiary.”

“An inmate? He seemed so mild.”

“Kincaid was anything but mild, Mr. Hall. His dossier reads like a Police Gazette crime manual. But, Kincaid was killed during an escape attempt in ’92.”

Hall leaned forward, thoroughly interested. “I don’t follow, Miss Chalice. How could I have hired Kincaid, if he was killed more than three years ago?”

“Four inmates made that escape attempt, Mr. Hall. Kincaid was killed by a tower guard, and two others were captured the following day. Only one managed to get away. That one was Kincaid’s cellmate—Niles Gratton.”

“Gratton!” Hall bolted upright. “You mean—”

“Exactly. He is Seth Gratton’s brother. Working at your bank he was able to tip Seth off whenever large amounts were being transferred; or when lawmen were setting a trap.”

“I’ll be damned.”

“Seth Gratton was arrested two days ago, so my guess would be that as soon as Niles heard that, he knew the jig was up.”

“So he’s gone now?”

“It looks that way,” Dixie agreed. But, she didn’t really believe that. Her investigation found out that Niles Gratton idolized his older brother and she was betting that he was still around; waiting for a chance to free Seth. “Where is his place?”

There was an alley between the a dry good store and the Two Guns Gazette office leading to a small cluster; three hastily constructed shacks, several large tents set up as boarding houses and a small one-room adobe.

Dixie Chalice hesitated a moment, but seeing no one around she walked quickly toward the adobe. A curtain hung over the doorway and she paused near it, craning her ears to pick up any sound. Hearing nothing, Dixie silently slid behind the blanket. The nauseating room was a mess of rotted food, body odor, desert dust and littered with empty bottles. The bed was bare, except for an empty whiskey bottle, and the wooden pegs on the walls were all vacant. It looked like Niles Gratton had taken off for good.

She moved the curtain to step out of the house and he was standing there with a queer look on his face.

“Oh … Mr. Kincaid! You startled me.”

“Miss Chalice, isn’t it? I’m afraid we haven’t had the privilege of meeting,” he said. There was a smile on his lips; but frank curiosity in his eyes. “What brings you here?”

“I was looking for Wally.”

“Wally Dalton? He don’t live here,” Gratton said. He stepped into the room, forcing Dixie to take a step back. “Sorryit’s so messy. Wasn’t expecting company.”

“Oh, that’s quite alright,” she said hastily. “I’m the one intruding. I am sorry to disturb you.”

She made to step around him, but he moved to block the door. “Now, there’s no need to hurry off, ma’am. What did you want with Wally anyway?”

“That is personal, Mr. Kincaid,” she said coldly.

“Oh, I see,” he grinned. He boldly looked her up and down. “Wally’s just a kid, he can’t do much for you. Now, me—I’m a man, honey. If you need something personal, well, me and you could have us a time.”

“I beg your pardon?” She thought of the pistol in her purse and wondered if she could get it out in time.

“I knew you weren’t no lady,” Niles said matter-of-factly. “I mean, with you living among them whores.”

“You are mistaken, Mr. Gratton. I am not a woman of easy virtue,” she snapped.

“Oh, my mistake, ma’am,” he said, stepping aside.

She moved by him when he suddenly grabbed her and clamped a hand over her mouth. She tried to struggle but he threw her against the wall and she lost her breath. She caught a solid backhand and fell to the floor. Before she knew what was happening he had her bound and gagged.

He yanked her roughly to her feet and carried her to the bed. He tossed her down on it and stood over her, looking troubled.

“Now, I wonder how you knew my name was Gratton? Something here don’t make sense.”

 

31

Seth Gratton paced back and forth in the cell. Somehow he had slipped up. At first, when he had been arrested, he figured he’d be out in no time flat. Then Al Gears came by.

“You dragging your feet, Al? Get me out of here.”

“Not that easy, Mr. Gratton,” the lawyer explained. “They recovered marked bills from your safe.”

Gratton spun around.”A set-up?”

“I’m requesting thatJudge Akeley set a bond amount,” Gears went on. “Once he does we can post it and get you out.”

That was two days ago, and no further word fromGears. Gratton was left with questions.

How did they get into his safe? The only key was in his pocket. But that was of minor concern; the bigger one was that someone knew enough of what was happening to feed him false information.

Cullen Bryant didn’t seem the sort to figure it all out, and he didn’t give Steele much credit, either. Was it Thayer? A possibility. Gratton had the compact gambler pegged as a devious sort; Bet might set him up in retaliation for his Skinny’s attack.

Gratton stopped pacing and turned to look through the bars. Bryant was sitting behind his desk, rolling himself a smoke, with a hot cup of coffee before him. Wally Dalton was seated in a chair he had tipped back against the wall. He seemed lost in his own thoughts. If he got a chance to talk to Wally alone, Gratton was sure they could reach an understanding. Bryant must have guessed as much, as he never left Dalton alone with Gratton.

Gratton gritted his teeth to surpress a curse. He had to get out of the cell! He missed Cole Farnum now, for the taciturn gunman wouldn’t need to be told what to do. But now his right-hand man was Hoss Radbourn. A dangerous, cruel man, Radbourn was no mental giant; he wouldn’t act without being told what to do.

Skinny? Now there was a possibility; the big man was always thinking, knowing more than he let on. Maybe Skinny Munroe already had something in the works? If he did, it had better happen fast, Gratton thought. He had to escape before Perry Owens arrived, or his odds would be nil. At the first sign of trouble, Owens was likely to shoot him first, Gratton knew.

Gratton smiled to himself. At least Steele was still out of it; Skinny didn’t kill the gambler, but he had taken The Widowmaker out of the picture.

Seth began pacing again, wondering what Niles was doing. He knew his brother would die before he would betray him. Seth felt no such loyalty; he would sacrifice anyone in his way.

Pounding hoofbeats sounded on the street, the rider reining up before the marshal’s office. Bryant glanced out the window before getting up from his chair. He swung the door open as Hank LeCour stepped up on the boardwalk.

“Marshal! I’m Hank LeCour,” the grizzled rider said. The horse behind him was covered with lather. “I work with Dixie.”

Bryant nodded, “She mentioned you.”

“Some of the Hashknife boys are heading this way! They’re planning to bust Gratton out of the hoosegow.”

“Damn! I don’t have the guns to stop ‘em! Steele’s out of it,” Cullen explained. He led the way inside. “It’s just me and Wally.”

Gratton perked up when he recognized LeCour; he was sure this was part of a scheme to free him.

Wally looked over casually. “What’s going on?”

“The Hashknife is coming to town to spring him,” Bryant said, bobbing his head toward the cage. He turned to LeCour, “How many you reckon?”

“Twenty, or so,” LeCour said. “Be here soon. Any word from Owens?”

“Dixie sent him a wire,” Bryant replied. “She thinks he’ll be here today or tomorrow.”

LeCour was supposed to be leading the Hashknife Gang, but it didn’t sound like it to Gratton. Was Hank LeCour some type of lawdog, sent here to infiltrate the gang? He thought about what Bryant had said: Dixie had wired Commodore Perry Owens! That meant she was involved. Dixie was some kind of agent! Gratton’s mind raced, he felt a rage building up within him. She had used him! She must be a Pink!

“You sure Steele is out of it?”

Bryant nodded grimly, “Just us three.”

“Hold on now!” Wally leapt to his feet. “You saying it’s the three of us against twenty Hashknife gunmen?”

“How she shapes up,” Bryant nodded. “Unless Owens gets here.”

“I didn’t sign on to commit suicide,” Wally said. He looked from Bryant to LeCour, wringing his hands. “What chance do three have against twenty?”

“You’re wearing a badge, Wally,” Bryant pointed out. “You swore to uphold the law.”

“Only law that I’m interested in is the law of survival, Marshal.” Wally unpinned his badge and threw it on the desk. “And three against twenty don’t stack up as likely odds.”

“Look, Wally, I need you,” Bryant persisted. “This town needs you.”

“I’m out of it,” Wally said as he walked to the door. “Seems to be you’d be smart to let Gratton out.”

LeCour closed the door after Wally, and walked over to the gunrack. He took down a Winchester and checked the loads.

“How do we play it, Marshal?”

“If I were you, I’d listen to the kid, Bryant,” Gratton said menacingly. “Let me out. When the boys get here I’ll make sure they do you no harm. As for you—” he fixed his eyes on LeCour —“I have no liking for traitors, LeCour. You signed your own death warrant!”

“Hold down the fort, Hank,” Bryant said, ignoring Gratton. “I’ll get word to Bet. ”

Bryant slipped out the door and ran across the street to the newspaper office; a moment later Jeff Bloom exited and hurried toward the south end of town.

It was an overcast day and the wind was kicking up, with gusts that shook the tents recklessly and sent tumbleweeds scurrying furiously along Hell Street.

Bryant started across the street when he spotted Mayor Garza emerging from Big Bloke’s; the blacksmith was right behind him. He hurried toward them and wasted no words in apprising them of the situation.

“I’ll see who I can round up,” Garza said. “We’ll fort up at Doc’s. From his second floor we can cover the whole street near the jail.”

“What about you, Hans? You mixing in this fight?”

Ja! This is my town, too,” Hans Wagner declared. “I have a surprise, I t’ink.”

LeCour was pouring a cup of coffee when Bryant returned. “How’s it shaping up, Marshal?”

“The mayor and some of the north end boys will fort up at Doc Magee’s. That’ll give us some help,” Bryant said. He accepted the cup LeCour handed him. He took a sip. “Hopefully some of the south end men will throw in, too.”

Gripping the bars to his cell, Gratton laughed. “You’re loco, Bryant. You don’t have a chance. The boys will pull this jail down around your ears!”

Cullen took a Winchester from the gunrack and picked up a box of shells. “Could be, Gratton. Only you ain’t a-gonna be set free.” Bryant began feeding shells into the magazine.”Only way your leaving that cell is feet first.”

“You can’t do that, Marshal. Why that’d be plumb murder.”

“Not murder, Gratton,” Bryant corrected him. “Be a reckoning. Call it justice for Gertie Beauregard.”

“You can’t prove a thing.”

There was a sharp rap on the door and Bet Thayer entered.

“Heard you boys were fixing to have a picnic,” the immaculate gambler grinned. “Am I invited?”

“Glad to have you, Bet! She’s a-gonna be some shindig for sure.”

“Any of the others coming?” LeCour asked.

“If you knew ‘Iron Joe’ McGinnity, you wouldn’t have to ask,” Thayer chuckled. “He’d ride fifty miles for a good fight! Mac, Lute, Forleo and a dozen others plan to fort up in the Gazette office with Bloom. We’ll have those Hashknife boys in a little crossfire. They want trouble, they can have it in spades!”

Minutes stretched and lurched clumsily along; thirty minutes came and went, with the defenders on guard. LeCour fished out his watch and glanced at it with annoyance.

“Been an hour,” the detective grumbled.

“Be dark soon,” Bet commented. He stood by the door, which was slightly ajar.

Bryant finished checking the bullets in his Winchester for the third time. “Maybe that’s what they’re a-waiting for.”

“I thought they’d strike by now,” LeCour said, worry in his voice.

“They’re letting us sweat a bit,” Thayer said. “But we’ve been through too many wars to let that ruffle our feathers.”

“I wish they’d get it over with,” the marshal replied. “Always hated waiting for the other feller to make a play.”

“Somebody’s coming.” Bet pushed the door open a little further and peeked out. He turned back to the room with a smile on his lips. “Dinner time, boys.”

Nizhoni and Miss Clara walked in, each carrying a picnic basket.

“I was a-getting hungry,” Cullen grinned. “Was about ready to eat my hat!”

“We’ve got fried chicken and tortillas,” Nizhoni said, as she set her basket on the desk. “It’ll probably taste better than your hat, hosteen.”

“Big Bloke did some baking today, so we brought you some bearsign,” Clara added.

“I ain’t had me no bearsign for so long, I can’t even hardly recollect when it were,” Bryant exclaimed.

“A little something extra,” Clara grinned as she opened her basket and brought out a bottle of whiskey. “Something to wash it all down with, gents.”

“Much obliged, ladies,” Bet said. “Surprised Dixie didn’t come along with you.”

“She never came back to the house,” Clara said. “I thought she might be here.”

The men looked at each other and shrugged.

“Wonder where she is?” Bet commented.

“Probably following some lead,” LeCour suggested. “Don’t worry about her, Bet; she’s a regular wildcat!”

“You ladies best get back home,” Bet suggested. “We’re expecting trouble any moment.”

Once the women departed, the jailhouse defenders settled down to eat dinner and have a few slugs of whiskey. Bryant gave chicken and tortillas to Gratton.

“I could use a drink of that who-hit-John,” Gratton said.

“Too valuable,” Bryant said. “Can’t waste it on a dead man.”

“Have your little joke,” Gratton growled. “We’ll see who gets the last laugh.”

LeCour filled a plate and took it with him as he went back to his position by the rear window.

“I have a bad feeling about Dixie.”

“You heard LeCour. She can take care of her ownself,” Bryant replied. He reached for his third donut and—like the pair before—washed it down with a healthy swallow of whiskey.

Night comes quick to the desert, as if some dark carpet is suddenly unfurled across the landscape. With night came the chill. Hot as it was during the day, there was little to hold the heat after the sun went down.

The north side of Twin Arrows Creek was a dreary melancholy gray, casting the street in a somber glow. Lamplights had been lit in front of Doc Magee’s and the Two Guns Gazette office; the sheriff’s office had lamps in front and by the rear window where LeCour squatted. Everyone was on edge; even Gratton had lost the desire to goad his captors.

A sudden pistol echoed from across the creek.

“Probably some tomfoolery,” Thayer said.

Then a barrage of gunfire exploded to the south.

“They’re attacking the south end!” Bryant exclaimed.

“Must think we’re holding Gratton at the Nugget,” LeCour shouted as he rushed from the rear.

Bryant grabbed his Winchester. “Reckon we can end it now!”

Thayer closed the door behind him, hurrying after the marshal. He carried a shotgun.

 

32

Dixie Chalice opened her eyes to total darkness. Her wrists and ankles were bound; the smell of unwashed clothing and rotting food told her that she was still in Niles Gratton’s adobe. She tried to move and kicked an empty bottle that rolled off the bed and clattered to the floor.

“Awake, eh?” Niles loomed over her, a thin, shadow in the blackness. He tested her binds, convincing himself that she was still trussed up. “Been out and about, Miss Chalice—or should I say Agent Chalice?

“Yes, they were talking all about it over to the restaurant and at the Pizen. Talking of how the Pinkertons set up my brother. I wondered why someone who could sing like you was content to stay out here, in the middle of nowhere. When I heard about the Pinks, it all made sense.”

Her eyes were growing accustomed to the dark and she could see Niles as he kept peering out the door. Why was he still here, Dixie realized he was waiting for someone—or something. Was it a jailbreak? What else could it be, she wondered? When he made his try at freeing his brother, Niles would have to leave her alone; Dixie was sure she could manage to escape, especially since he had bound her wrists in front of her. She wouldn’t have much time to work with, but it would be enough. She would free herself and then find her purse and retrieve her snub-nosed Bulldog revolver.

“Won’t be long now,” Niles said to himself. Then he remembered Dixie. “Just relax now. Seth will be happy to see you.”

A horse stamped a foot close by. Dixie knew horses were saddled and waiting; but how many? Was he thinking of bringing her with them when he and Seth made their escape? She was determined not to let that happen; if it did, she was as good as dead.

There was a gunshot.

“Finally!” he hissed.

The night came alive with gunfire. Niles Gratton was framed in the doorway for a moment and then vanished into the gloom.

Dixie immediately brought her hands up and, using her teeth, started working on the ropes.

 

======

 

John Carrier Steele was jarred awake by the roar of gunfire. This time it wasn’t a dream. Getting up from his bed, he looked out the opened window. The shooting was coming from south of the creek; he saw men pouring from the newspaper office and racing southward. He heard rushing boots on the boardwalk beneath his window.

What was going on? Things were still somewhat hazy to him, but not as bad as earlier in the day. The pain in his head had lessened, too. He grabbed his holster from the chair beside his bed and slung it about his hips. Bending over, he tied the holster down; then he picked up his spare gun and shoved it behind his belt.

There was even more shooting now. As he turned from the window he heard the sound of horses walking up the street, coming slowly from the north. Steele picked up a shotgun, then ghosted down the stairs. He emerged from his office as five riders walked their horses up the street.

“Told you it would work,” a voice said with a hearty laugh.

“You called it, boss,” another rider agreed. “Looks like everybody rushed across the creek.”

Niles Gratton was crouched at the side of the Gazette building. He recognized Art Gunnison’s voice. Niles was about to stand up when he glimpsed a shadow moving off the boardwalk across the street. The lone figure walked boldly to the center of the street, facing the oncoming riders!

‘That’s far enough, pilgrims!”

“That you, Bryant?”

“It’s Steele. Now suppose you boys turn around and make tracks.”

The small cavalcade reined to a halt.

“Well, Steele, glad to see you’re up and about. Heard you were busted up.”

“How do we know it’s really Steele, Mr. Gunnison?”

“You’re young, Compston. Only a man like Steele would have the nerve to step out and face five men alone.” Gunnison pushed his hat back on his head. “We come for Gratton, and we mean to get him. You don’t figure to stop us all, do you?”

“You can turn around and forget all this, you know. Nobody has to die.”

“You can walk away, Steele,” Gunnison said. “Hell, nobody will fault you! You’re outgunned. I mean to have Gratton. I ain’t fooling neither.”

“There’s room enough on Boot Hill for the lot of you, Gunnison. Best you ride while you can,” Steele said conversationally. “I want the man who killed Curly Kissick, too.”

“Got to hand it to you, Steele! You’re quite a manjack,” Gunnison said, a note of admiration in his voice. Takes nerve to stand alone against five armed men. But, the key word is alone. We’ve wasted too much time. Stand aside or we’ll ride over you!”

There was still heavy firing coming from the south, a slight wind licked at Steele’s frock coat but the lawman remained unmoving.

“Have it your way,” Gunnison said, as he gathered up his reins. “Any last words?”

“Just two,” Steele growled. “Slap leather!”

Steele stood proudly, a man of reason, but as the shotgun lifted the compromising lawman died away and the unrelenting, hell-on-wheels gunfighter known as The Widowmaker burst into action.

The greener roared and spat its deadly load of buckshot at Gunnison. Even as the ranch foreman was blasted from his horse, Steele et the shotgun drop and his right hand flashed downward.

His Colt Peacemaker coughed up death.

Sounding as one, Steele sent two bullets into the gut of the rider beside Gunnison. Several bullets sliced the air above his head, as he crouched and moved to his right. When Gunnison fell from the saddle his spurs had jammed into his horse. The horse leaped wildly, throwing the other cowboys into a brief turmoil.

Reb Shannon regained control of his sorrel and fired from the hip. The howling lead cut through Steele’s hat. Steele stood sideways like a duelist. He took careful aim and nailed Shannon just to the side of a Bull Durham tag.

A bullet tugged at his sleeve; Steele executed the Border Shift, tossing his Colt .44 to his left hand, then deftly clawed for the spare behind his belt.

He stood spreadlegged in the street, firing the right hand gun and then the left at the remaining cowboys. A horse lurched past him, a man in a sombrero clinging desperately to the saddlehorn. Steele whirled and sent a second bullet into Fuentes. The Mexican slipped from the saddle and hit the ground hard.

Les Compston took aim at the broad back and squeezed off his short. Steele had started to turn and the hot lead plowed into his left side. The Widowmaker staggered. Steadying himself, Steele fired at Compston. A clean miss.

Compston’s fired wildly, almost in a panic. One bullet plowed into the earth; the second struck the marshal’s left leg. Steele fell to the side, losing the grip on his guns.

The pistols were just out of reach. Teeth clenched, he dug his fingers into the street and tried to pull himself closer to his Colt.

The last rider loomed above him. Compston clutched a gun in his left hand.

“Who would figure this?” Compston said. “Me killing John Carrier Steele!”

The outlaw’s eyes held an evil gleam as he slowly raised his Colt .45.

A rifle boomed and Compston’s face contorted into shock. The six-gun slipped from his fingers. He swayed slightly and then toppled from the saddle.

Two riders walked their horses from the shadows.

“Looked like a good time to lend a hand, Steele,” Commodore Perry Owens said, as he shoved his Winchester back into the boot.

“You hit bad?” Cole Farnum asked, as he dismounted and trailed his reins. He knelt beside Steele. “Where are you hit?”

“I’m … I’m okay.”

“Got him three times, looks like,” Farnum called out to Owens. “Looks bad, Perry. Give me a hand; we’ll get him to Doc Magee’s.”

Owens started to dismount, then looked down the street. “Hashknife riders coming, Cole!”

Kommen sie here! Help me!” Hans Wagner shouted as he struggled to push a handcart out into the street.

“What the hell you got?” Owens asked as he and Farnum put their backs into it and got the cart out into the middle of Hell Street.

“I rebuilt it, ja,” Wagner said proudly. He began loading the Gatling gun. “Now we are ready!”

The Hashknife cowboys came thundering down the street and opened fire with their pistols. They were met by the vicious snarl of a Gatling gun and the deadly sharpshooting of Owens and Farnum.

Niles Gratton knew he had no chance to free his brother; he’d have to get out of town himself and think of a new plan. He slipped back down the alley.

He had gotten word to Art Gunnison and had it all figured out. If the Hashknife couldn’t bust into the jail, it could keep the town occupied while he slipped inside and rescued Seth. But now he’d have to hole up someplace and bide his time. He thought of Dixie Chalice then; at least he wouldn’t have to spend his time alone.

 

======

Hoss Radbourn was at the Bucket O’ Blood when the first shots were fired. He had been as surprised as anyone when the battle opened. He glanced out the window and saw the Hashknife cowboys firing at anything that moved.

At first he thought the nightriders would hoorah the town; but he changed his mind when men opened fore from the saloons, gambling houses and bordellos. Radbourn didn’t know the raid was part of a plan, but he was quick to grasp the situation.

This was the showdown.

Swiftly Radbourn ducked out the backdoor of the saloon and, staying behind the buildings, made his way to Miss Clara’s. With the keen sense of a survivor, he knew he was through in Two Guns. Gratton was in the hoosegow, and now all Hell was breaking loose. Experience had taught him that when the townsfolk decided enough was enough, things just wouldn’t be the same no more. A wise man forked his bronc and rattled his hocks for friendler climes! Gratton decided he would leave alright—but it wouldn’t be alone. He’d take that uppity singer lady. Thinking about her fairly made his mouth water; why he’d never had a first-class filly like Dixie before!

He entered Miss Clara’s through the back door. The kitchen was empty, but he heard muffled voices from the living room. He stepped through the door. Clara was looking out the slightly ajar front door; several of her girls were peeking through other windows, careful not to silhouette themselves.

“Evenin’, ladies.”

They jumped as if slapped with a red-hot poker.

“Thought you’d be out there,” Clara said. She was stalling for time, trying to come up with a plan. Coming here meant Radbourn had evil on his mind.

“I aim mosey,” Radbourn said insolently. “Don’t figure to ride alone.”

“There’s nothing here for you,” Clara said.

“I come for that singer gal. I’m takin’ her.”

“Dixie isn’t here,” Clara replied. “We haven’t seen her all day.”

As he talked, Radbourn had kept an ear tuned to the goings-on in the street. The town had been roused and he sensed time was short.

“Awright, she ain’t here,” he acknowledged. He moved across the room, looking the girls over. “You!” He pointed to a shapely senorita. “You’re comin’ with me.”

“Stay where you are, Christina,” Clara said sharply. She stepped between Radbourn and her girls. “Get out, Radbourn. Get out—or Steele will hunt you down.”

“Steele,” he sneered. “Hell, he’s finished. Ain’t afraid of him no how.”

With a sudden backhand he struck Clara in the face and sent her sprawling to the floor.

“That’ll learn you,” Radbourn crowed. “Get over here, Mex!” His eyes strayed toward Christina; they came to a sudden halt as they fixed on the man in the doorway.

“Isn’t Steele you need to worry about, Radbourn.”

The ruffian stared as his anger grew. He had wasted too much time with Clara.

“You, is it? Well, why not? I got no use for you, sonny boy.”

“Might have let you go,” Wally said matter-of-factly. “But you had to go and hit my mother.”

Radbourn wasn’t drunk, but he wasn’t feeling any pain either. Suddenly a thought came to him and he smiled. Why there was no reason to be a-feared; this was the same kid that used to practice his draw out behind the livery. Gratton had heard dozens of cowboys laugh at Wally Dalton! Gawd dammit, he was Hoss Radbourn! He wasn’t to be cowed by no wet-behnd-the-ears runt.

Radbourn’s hand dropped for his gun. He would show this whippersnapper—he took an involuntary step back as a piece of hot lead ripped through his innards.

Radbourn would have sworn the kid never moved, but suddenly there wasa gun in his hand—and it was spitting death! A second and third bullet slammed into him and Radbourn felt himself falling.

“Did you see that?” one of the girls cried out.

“ Saw Steele draw in Bodie” another added. “Wally was faster!”

 

33

The southern end of Hell Street was strewn with eight dead Hashknife cowboys, two dead horses and several unmoving townsmen. One railroad man was shot dead, two others had serious wounds and four men—including Mayor Joey Garza—had flesh wounds.

Hank LeCour had been struck twice, once in the shoulder and the second through the chest. Already flecks of blood were bubbling on his lips.

“Get a door and move him to my place,” Clara ordered.

“No … no,” LeCour rasped, weakly taking her hand as she knelt beside him. “No use.”

“We beat them, Hank,” Bet Thayer reported.

LeCour offered a half smile.

“Can we do anything to ease your pain?”

“Could do with a drink. Dying is thirsty work.”

“Christina,” Clara called to one of her girls. “Run over to the Gem and get a bottle.”

“Everything’s getting dark, so hard to see,” LeCour moaned. “Wish Dixie was here, she—”

“I’m here, Hank.” Dixie Chalice looked tousled and worn; and there were blood splatters on her white blouse. She dropped to her knees and took LeCour’s hand. “It’s over, Hank. Gratton’s still in jail and Gunnison is dead.”

“Dixie, you listen to me now. This is no life for a lady. You told me about the place in Carolina … how you wanted to raise horses. Remember?”

“I remember, Hank,” she replied, wiping a tear from her eye.

“You do that, Dixie. Go back to the Carolinas and raise those horses,” he said. He groaned a little as Dixie raised his head while Clara poured a bit of amber liquid into his mouth. He coughed a little. “Going to miss that rotgut, boys. D … Dixie … one more thing.”

“What is it, Hank?”

“Marry that young man, for God’s sake. I can go happy, knowing you’ve got someone to take care of you.”

“I will,” she said, half laughing and crying at the same time. “Goodbye, Hank.”

LeCour reached up and patted her hand and then he gritted his teeth as his hand went limp. He died with a contented smile on his face.

“What happened to you?” Judge Akeley asked Dixie, as he held his old Walker Colt, which he had put to good use.

“Gratton’s brother and I had a difference of opinion, Judge. He thought I should go into hiding with him and I thought he should go to hell.”

Bet Thayer put his left arm around her. “Remind me never to argue with you.”

 

======

 

The next morning Commodore Perry Owens left for Prescott with Seth Gratton in irons. The raid on Two Guns proved devastating to the outlaw element of the Hashknife, with those involved in the stage hold-ups either dead or on the run. A new Hashknife manager, Dave Wilcox, took over, and he was a cattleman. Wilcox’s first order of business was to hire Cullen Bryant as ranch foreman.

A week drifted lazily by before the next Flagstaff stage arrived in town.

“Take my advice, Jack,” Bet said as he stood on the boardwalk, leaning against a post. “Put away your guns and head east where no one knows you. Dixie and I are going to raise horses in South Carolina. I’m leaving the smoky barrooms behind.”

“Luck to you, Bet.”

Thayer took out a thin cigar and lit it. “Trouble with luck is that it always gives out at the worst time.”

Steele was still healing from his wounds; he used a cane now to help him get along. “Thought I’d used it up this time,” he admitted.

“Maybe you did, Jack. Maybe that was the last of it,” Bet suggested. “Now’s the time to walk away. Hell, what an ending to your career—standing alone against five gunmen to save the town! Not many of us get to walk away while on top, Jack. Think about it, will you?”

Steele shifted his weight. “I don’t know, Bet. What could I do back east? I have no skills other than gunplay.”

“Clara’s saved up quite a bit of money over the years,” Thayer said. “You know she’s always wanted to tour the Continent.”

Dixie came out of the newspaper office and walked toward Bet Thayer.

“All set,” she smiled. “I sent my resignation in to the Chicago office. I also wired my family in Carolina that we’re coming home.”

Thayer straightened up. “I guess we’d better find us a sky pilot in Flagstaff, Dixie. Wouldn’t be proper for an unmarried lady to go traipsing around the country with a rogue gambler.”

“A retired gambler,” Dixie corrected. “From now on we’ll just be Mr. and Mrs. Warren Thayer. I have the only two things I want—Warren, peace.”

“See you around, Bet,” Steele said as he stuck out his hand. Then he tipped his hat to Dixie, “Take care of yourself, Dixie, and keep this rascal out of trouble.”

Dixie gave Steele a quick peck on the cheek and then let Thayer take her arm and help her into the coach.

“Be something to see Paris,” Bet said before disappearing inside the stage. The driver cracked his whip and, with a lurch, the coach was on its way.

“I’ll be damned,” Steele said half under his breath.

“What is it, Jack?” Jeff Bloom asked.

“Knew Bet for twenty-five years. Never knew his name was Warren.”

A restful calm fell upon the town, only occasionally broken by a fistfight or dispute between gamblers. His stand against the Hashknife earned Steele even more respect and enhanced his legend as the greatest living gunfighter.

Such was not the case for Wally Dalton. His walking out on Marshal Bryant when he was needed most was looked down on and scorn was heaped on him. Some whispered that he was yellow when push came to shove. Only a handful of people knew about his killing of Radbourn; as Clara had sworn her girls to secret.

For several weeks Dalton paraded around town, daring anyone to question his courage. Finally he drifted to Flagstaff, then Prescott. He killed a man who accidentally bumped into him in a saloon and pistol-whipped another over a gambling disagreement.

Jeff Bloom sat at the telegraph key and dutifully deciphered the message coming over the wire. He stood up with a frown on his face and hurried to the restaurant, where Mayor Garza was having dinner with Steele and Miss Clara.

“Oh, Jeff!  Sit down,” Garza said pleasantly. “We haven’t ordered yet.”

“I’m not sure you’ll have an appetite once you read this,” Bloom said. He handed the message to the mayor.

“It’s from Mueller,” Garza said. He began to scowl as he read. When he finished he shook his head slowly. “Well, that’s all she wrote for Two Guns. Mueller says the A & P decided against coming through here. Too lawless.”

“This place will become a ghost town,” Bloom said. “I wasn’t making a profit running a newspaper anyway. Maybe I’ll try my luck back home.”

“Where’s that?” Steele asked.

“Philadelphia,” Bloom smiled. “I’ll be glad to get away from all this wind and dust.”

Garza handed the message back to the newspaperman. “Well, you should sell a few copies of tomorrow’s Gazette.”

The night was chilly and Clara clutched her wrap tight about her shoulders as Steele walked her home.

“I suppose Two Guns won’t have need of a marshal much longer.”

“Reckon not.”

“What are you going to do, Jack?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t figure I’d make it out of here alive,” he told her. “Maybe that’s why I took this job, Clara. I’ve been losing my eyesight the past few years; I thought this would give me a quick end.”

“You’re too fatalistic, Jack. You still have thirty or forty years ahead of you. You have options; it doesn’t have to be the way you think.”

“Yeah, maybe you’re right.”

“I’m going to open a theater in San Francisco,” she said. “I’ll go legit. I already have my first act; young Willy Gillmon is going to be my partner. And, I recently received a letter from an old friend, John Drew. You remember him?”

“Who doesn’t? He’s one of the best stage actors around.”

“Well, his theater company will be touring the west coast and he’s open to another engagement,” Clara gushed. “Remember Maurice Barrymore? His daughter, Ethel, is an actress now and she’ll be appearing, too.”

“San Francisco, eh?”

“You’re welcome to join me,” she said. “We could do well together, me and you.”

“We’ve lost so much time,” Steele muttered.

She turned to face him. “The past is the past. We can’t change it. But the shame would be if we missed all the future has to offer, Jack. I’ve wasted years hoping you’d ask me—well, I’m not losing another moment. John Carrier Steele, will you—”

“Jack!” Luther Grimes rushed through the batwing doors of the Providence. “Have you heard the news?”

“What is it, Lute?”

“Cole Farnum is dead.”

“What? Cole? Are you sure, Lute?”

“Couple of cowboys inside, they just came in from Prescott,” Grimes explained. “They said Cole was killed four days ago.”

“That’s too bad.”

“You ain’t hard the worst of it, Jack. It was Wally Dalton that killed ‘im.”

“That kid’s gone loco,” Steele said.

“He’s coming back here, Jack. He wants you!”

Clara gasped. “How do you know, Lute?”

Grimes jerked a thumb toward the Providence. “They said so. Wally claims to be the fastest gun alive. He aims to prove it.”

“Thanks, Lute. I’ll keep an eye out.”

Clara clutched Steele’s arm tightly as they continued on their way. They angled across the street, toward her building.

“What are you going to do?” she asked in a whisper.

“He’s a rabid wolf now,” he replied. “He’ll keep on killing until he’s stopped.”

“You can’t, Jack,” she pleaded. “He’s my son.”

Steele lowered his head. “I know, Clara. I’m sorry, but I’m not the one hunting him down.”

“You could leave, now, before he gets here.”

“You want me to run?”

“No one will blame you, Jack; not after the way you faced up to the Hashknife,” Clara said. “You could just pick up and leave. You—we—could leave for San Francisco,” she said with a glimmer of hope in her voice.”We could leave first thing in the morning!”

“I love you, Clara. I’ve always loved you.”

“But you’re going to wait here?”

“I don’t run , Clara,” he said as he shook his head sadly. “Reckon I’m too old to start now.”

“You can’t,” she repeated.

“You worried about me, Clara? Or is it Wally?”

“Both of you, Jack. I couldn’t bear to lose either of you.”

“Sam Dalton was no good. It was a sorry day when you hitched your horse to his wagon. I’m afraid your son has taken after his father.”

“Sam Dalton wasn’t his father.”

Steele was startled. “What do you mean?”

She turned her back and stood silent for a long moment. “I was two months pregnant when I met Sam. When I started showing, I let on that it was his. Sam never realized anything different, and I figured my son deserved a father. I thought I could change Sam, get him to settle down.

“It worked for a few years, then he got restless. He left for good when Wally was six. Wally grew up believing that his father was a famous gunman; and he is determined to be just as good.”

“Too bad for the kid. But, Sam Dalton couldn’t outshoot a cactus in a fair fight.” Steele turned and started down the stairs. “Talk to him, Clara. Talk some sense into the boy. When a man puts on a gun, he’s expected to be responsible for what he says and does.

“I can only make one promise to you. I won’t go hunt him down.”

“Jack! You can’t kill Wally.”

“Ain’t heard a reason why not.”

With tears staining her cheeks, Clara turned around and fixed her gaze on Steele. She bit her lip and glanced away. “He’s your son, Jack. He’s our son.”

 

34

It was a long, restless night for Steele. He tossed and turned, unable to get comfortable and managed only snippets of sleep—and those were besieged by the same, familiar nightmare.

On a dark, lonely street, lashed by a steely rain, he felt his body twisting and turning, he cringed as a dozen imaginary bullets tore away pieces of his flesh. Still he stood, refusing to fall until he’d fought back and defeated them all. All, but one. This time the shadowy figure on the boardwalk stepped off into the street and a savage slash of lightning ripped through the sky, half illuminating a lean, cruel face, the rest hidden by a black shadow.

Steele felt a twinge as he recognized the face; it was Wally Dalton.

His heart pounding and his breath came in sharp gasps. Steele sat on the side of his bed. The room was dark; he could see the outlines of the small table by the window, the chair next to his bed, a Winchester leaning against the wall by the door. He rose slowly and went to the bureau and, taking the pitcher, poured water into a basin and splashed it on his face.

What could he do? If he slipped out of town, they might say he was a coward. A shootist couldn’t let his reputation be challenged, or he’d have every glory-hunting kid from here to Tucumcari lining up to become “the man who killed John Carrier Steele.”

If he wasn’t a gunfighter, what was he? He realized sadly that he was only a man with a gun; he had built nothing and would leave nothing behind when his time came.

Was that time to be now?

How could he face Wally Dalton? What man can knowingly kill his son? They called him Widowmaker and claimed that he was a monster, but was he beast enough to kill his own flesh and blood?

He shook out his boots before stamping his feet into them. Picking up his holster, he stared at it for a long time before buckling it on.

He needed time to think, to consider; he still wasn’t sure how to handle Wally’s threats. But there was one thing he could do. Wally Dalton was extremely eager to add to his reputation, and there were only two men in this area that could do that for him.

Steele was uncertain what he’d do himself, but he could warn Cullen Bryant about Wally’s intentions.

It was still dark when Steele crossed the street to the livery and saddled up his strawberry roan. The horse nudged him with its nose.

“Don’t tell me you want to move on, too, Red?” the gunman whispered as he stroked the roan’s mane. He walked the horse out of town and then broke into a canter. It was a long ride out to the Hashknife.

The sun had flashed its brilliance in the east before Steele reached the mouth of Canyon Diablo. Steele remained alert in the saddle; he remembered the fierce combat he had with the Camp Grant Apaches.

Funny he should think of that skirmish, he told himself. That was where he and Wally Dalton had fought for their lives together, where each had saved the other’s bacon. Now, they could be the death of each other. Life was funny like that. The most routine things could lead to unexpected results.

He thought of his old friend Wild Bill Hickok, who always sat with his back to a wall.  Except, that one time in Deadwood.

Or Billy the Kid, who was thinking about making himself a late-night snack when he walked into Pete Maxwell’s darkened bedroom back in 1881.

Naturally fast on the draw, Steele had continually practiced, always looking to improve. And he had; he was, arguably, the Prince of Pistoleers. In all that time he had faced tremendous odds over and over, with nary a thought of death. Only recently, with his eyesight failing, had he thought of dying—and he knew it was coming soon. Already he could no longer see the great distances he once had, and it was ever more difficult to adjust his eyes to the night.

Then there were the headaches, the constant pounding in his skull. They were occurring more frequently; and when they came his eyes went fuzzy, he saw double images.

Now, every time he strapped on his guns he couldn’t help but wonder if this was the day, the day his eyes went blurry as he drew.

In a way he wanted Death, he was ready. Let it come, fast and quick, he thought. Death had always been part of his life; if not a friend, it was at the least a constant companion.

But why death, why not life? He had met both Earp and Masterson in Tombstone and both of them had put their guns away and gotten on with their lives. He could do that!

And there was always Clara Beauregard …

His horse shied away from the body lying on its back at the foot of the canyon, below the Love Nest. It was Buford Tucker.

Dismounting, Steele took time to scan the area before approaching the body. One look told the story. From the angle of the bullet wound the killer had been higher up—in the cave!

Was he still there?

Tucker had started climbing and had looked up before he was shot. Whoever was in the cave had heard him climbing and coldly shot a helpless man.

Who could do such a thing? It suggested a man utterly without mercy. Steele tried to shake the next thought from his head, but it refused to flee. Hadn’t he said himself that Wally Dalton was turning the corner from shootist to murderer?

Steele climbed back into the saddle.

“Well, Red, we better make tracks if we’re going to warn Cull.”

The roan scrambled up the trail that led to the stage road and Steele wasted no time hurrying toward The Crossing. As he rode up to the door Wally Dalton stepped out. The surprise was complete for both men.

“Howdy, boy,” Steele said. His right hand was on his hip, close to his Peacemaker.

Wally nervously licked his lips. “You hear about Cole Farnum?”

“I did,” Steele nodded. “Cole was good, real good. I can’t figure out how you beat him.”

Brigo came to the door. “Senor Steele, I must speak with you.”

“In a minute, amigo. I’ve got business with Mr. Dalton.”

“But, senor—”

“It can hold, Brigo,” Wally snapped. He took a step back. “Farnum called me out, Steele. I had no choice.”

“There’s always a choice.”

“It’s done now. Way I see it you’re the only one left. The last of the old-time shootists.”

“I won’t fight you, kid.”

“Then I’ll shoot you off your horse.”

Slowly, Steele moved both hands to the saddlehorn. “Can’t fight you, boy. Ask your mother about that.”

“What’s this got to do my mother?”

“I should have married her years ago, but I was a foolish kid and fool kids make poor choices. But, when a bad decision involves a gun, sometimes you learn too late,” Steele said. He pushed his hat back on his head. “So you want to be a great gunfighter? You want to be like me? Take a good look, kid. I’m just a broke-down old man; no home, no family and mighty few friends. Every day I look over my shoulders to see if anyone’s trying to sneak up on me.

“When I look in the mirror every morning I wonder if this is the day. The day I die. I’ve been lucky, Wally, far luckier than I had any right to be.” Steele paused, lowering his voice, “You don’t want to be me, kid. I’m not a good role model.The day of the fast gun is over. If you’re wise you’ll put away those smoke poles and get on with your life, Wally. Don’t waste your life trying to be me; just be yourself.”

Senor Steele, por favor, it is muy importante.”

“I’m going back to Two Guns, Wally, and I’m going to marry your mother. I’m taking these things off. From this moment on, I’m through with gunfighting. I’m done killing and leaving widows behind.”

Wally looked confused. “Marry? Settle down? I don’t know, I just don’t—”

A rifle boomed from near the side of the barn. Steele threw up his hands and was smashed forward, falling from the saddle.

Brigo rushed inside to get his shotgun, and Wally ducked around the corner of the trading post—gun in hand. They heard a horse running off.

Senor!” Brigo dropped to his knees beside Steele. From the amount of blood the Mexican knew there was nothing to be done.

“Wally—where’s Wally?”

Brigo stood up and turned to Wally. “He asks for you, senor. He has little time.”

Wally dropped to one knee. “I’m here, Steele.”

“Wanted to look  … at you,” He coughed up blood. “One last time.”

“Sorry you got it in the back, Steele. That’s no way to go out.”

Steele feebly tried to move his hand. “Tell your ma I love her. Make proud … son.”

Steele took a final breath in and then his chest stopped moving. A leaf from a nearby tree blew softly in the light breeze, landing gently on Steele’s chest.

Brigo shook his head. “I tried to tell him that Black Johnson was around.”

Wally stood up. Still looking at Steele he asked, “Who’s Black Johnson?”

“He hunts men down for a price. Someone must have paid to have Steele killed.”

“Coward!” Wally spat the word out.  “Steele was too good a man to be shot in the back by some gutless polecat.”

Si, he was a good man. Muy bueno,” Brigo nodded. “He did not remember one night in Alta, but I do. There were four gringos drinking heavily and then they decided to hang a greaser. It was my misfortune to be standing at the bar. As I said there were four of them, and they overpowered me. They were leading me to a tree in the center of the town. And then Steele is there.

“’What has he done?’” he asked. They laugh, and one says that I did nothing, but be a Mexican. Steele asked how they felt about Indians and one of the men said he’d kill the next Indian he saw. ‘You see one now,’ Senor Steele replied. Ah, then he drew. It was a thing of great beauty, amigo! His gun appeared in his hand like magic and he killed two of the men, wounded another and the last one dropped his weapon and ran.”

Wally walked to his horse and slowly climbed into the saddle. He would return to Two Guns to tell his mother of Steele’s final words.

He was halfway back to town before he thought of it. Steele had said “son!” And his mother told him that he was her only child.

Was Steele his father?

He was going to ask his mother that question when he got back to town. And, if it was true, he had one more thing to do.

He would kill the man who killed John Carrier Steele.

 

 

About the Author

 

John Christian Hopkins is a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, a descendant of King Ninigret, patriarch of the tribe’s last hereditary royal family.

Hopkins is a career journalist who has worked at newspapers across New England, in New York, Florida, most recently in Arizona. He was a former nationally syndicated newspaper columnist for Gannett News Service.

As a child Hopkins slept clutching books to his chest and dreamed of becoming an author. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else but write,” Hopkins said.

Though proud of his native heritage—among his ancestors was Quadrequina, brother to Massasoit and the one that introduced popped corn to the Pilgrims at the First Thanksgiving—Hopkins is determined not to be pigeon-holed as a native author, but as an author who happens to be Native American.

He and his wife Sararesa live on her Navajo reservation in Fort Defiance, Arizona.

His blog: www.authorjohnchopkins.blogspot.com

 

 

 

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