Authors: Joe Millard
A Coffin Full Of Dollars
The leader and his six men faced the Man With No Name.
'I am Apachito,' the leader said. 'Men cringe and tremble at the mention of my name. And you think you can get me to the hangman for a few dollars...' Apachito sneered.
The six bandits, at a signal from their leader, moved as one towards the Man With No Name. But they made the fatal mistake of grabbing for the man instead of their guns.
In a blur of motion, the captive reached under his poncho, slapped the hammer of his Colt, and six shots sounded almost as one drum-roll of thunder, coming so fast that not one of the six bandits got his gun clear of leather before he died.
'They are counted out now, amigo,' Apachito said softly.
'Your gun is empty but mine is not....'
In life the late Marvin "No Nose" Megley had been by nature a massive elephant of a man, big-boned and heavily muscled. Recent years of mounting success as a bank robber, outlaw chieftain and all-around plunderer had enabled him to add many more pounds of fat from soft living.
Nevertheless, the bounty killer who had just outgunned him swung the unwieldy body to his shoulder without so much as a grunt of effort. Draping the inert mass across his horse's croup just behind the saddle, he secured it with a buckskin thong running from the wrists on one side, under the belly, to the ankles on the other. His horse, a handsome and powerful bay gelding with white stockings, accepted the burden without shying, having long since grown accustomed to such loads.
While he lived, Megley had been a firm believer in living high on the hog. The ankles to which the leather thong was tied were encased in elegant and expensive boots, hand-made and decorated with butterfly stitching and diamond-shaped inlays of white kid. Attached to the boots were silver spurs whose huge rowels were polished to a mirror sheen.
It was ironic that the flamboyant career of so big a man should be brought to its crashing end by a little chunk of cone-shaped lead precisely forty-four one-hundredths of an inch in diameter.
It was even more ironic that the man with no nose was brought down by a man with no name.
The bounty hunter was a figure to draw the stares of the curious wherever he went, standing a lean, hard-muscled six feet four in his stocking feet, with an unvarying costume that set him apart in any crowd. He wore a long brown-and-white fringed poncho in the Mexican fashion, with his head through a slit in its center and the ends falling nearly to his knees in front and behind. This was topped by a Texas-style black hat, broad-brimmed and flat-crowned.
Beneath the poncho was a short sheepskin vest whose pockets carried a supply of matches and the short Mexican
that were also his trademark. The poncho also covered and concealed a .44 Colt with a well-worn butt that had earned a reputation as perhaps the deadliest gun in the Southwest
The hunter was widely known by sight to both lawmen and outlaws throughout the Territory, but for reasons of his own no living person knew either his name or from whence he came. Consequently they dubbed him with descriptive titles of their own creation.
To the less imaginative, he was simply The Man From Nowhere or The Man With No Name. Below the Border he was widely known—and feared by the lawless—as
, Mister Nobody. To wanted outlaws, skulking in the shadowy reaches of the Owl-Hoot trail, he was The Hunter, The Bounty Killer, or most appropriate of all—Mister Sudden Death.
He finished tying the buckskin thong but remained in a half-crouch, his slitted gaze fixed on the dead man's gleaming spurs. It was not a look of envy or admiration but one of grim intent.
The polished rowels made perfect mirrors and one of them reflected the image of a man peering over the top of a rock behind him. The stranger's right hand was using the rock as a rest to steady the pistol he was leveling at the hunter's back.
The Man With No Name whirled around, spinning away from his horse's flank, tossing the poncho over his shoulder and drawing, all in one lightning move. As his gun cleared the holster, his left palm was already slapping the hammer. Two shots crashed almost as one but the stranger's was wild, the reflex of a man already dead with a bullet hole between his eyes.
The hunter waited until he was sure no other enemies were lurking among the rocks before breaking his gun to replace the two empty shell cases with fresh bullets from his belt. He dropped the gun back into its holster, got out one of the stubby cigars and snapped a wooden match to flame with his thumbnail. When the cigar was glowing to his satisfaction, he tramped back to the jumble of rocks where No Nose Megley had become a statistic.
The outlaw's ornate pistol still lay where it had fallen from its owner's dead hand. It was a gaudy piece of craftsmanship, as flamboyant as No Nose himself. The frame was gold-plated and intricately engraved. The grips were of ebony and chased with a filigree of gold.
The hunter examined it with professional rather than esthetic interest, trying its grip, balance and action before tucking it into his belt. He straightened up and went to the second dead man, sprawled behind the rock a few yards away, his hand still gripping his gun. The hunter pried it loose from fingers not yet stiffened in rigor mortis. This one was a plain, undecorated Colt .45, a no-frills working weapon. He added it to his belt without bothering to try its action.
He toed the body over onto its back and squatted down to examine it. The dead man was younger than No Nose, with a weak, pasty face, a wisp of anemic mustache and hair so pale he was almost albino. Curiously, the sallow cheeks were drenched with tears, as if he had been weeping wildly as he tried to bushwhack the bounty hunter.
Unfortunately, the face matched none of the artists' sketches or printed descriptions indelibly etched on the hunter's card-catalog memory. He scowled disgustedly, shaking his head. Nothing was more useless than a corpse without cash value.
The pockets yielded a few small coins, together with a gold-mounted quill toothpick and a gold watch, elaborately engraved with initials in a script he could not read. These were probably part of the loot from some robbery. The hunter tucked them away in an inner pocket.
As he stood up, a shadow slid soundlessly past him over the rocks. He looked up. Overhead the vultures were already gathering, wheeling in patient circles. He gestured toward the body.
. He's all yours."
Sheriff Jess Prack of Los Ydros County was a long and loosely assembled man with the sad, pouched eyes and mournful expression of a kicked bloodhound. Whether he possessed any other attributes of a bloodhound was the subject of sharp controversy in the county.
He circled the body on his office floor, tugging at an inverted crescent of sandy mustache and muttering to himself. Hunkering down on his heels he clawed a hand into the dead man's hair and turned the noseless face up for closer inspection.
No Nose Megley had never been a handsome man, even when his face was whole. The ricocheting bullet that had torn away his nose in a youthful gun fight had done nothing to improve his looks. The bullet hole between the empty eyes seemed almost a natural part of the entire grotesque assembly.
The sheriff let the ugly head drop and got to his feet.
"I guess it's him, all right."
The bounty hunter, who had been studying reward posters on the walls, said dryly over his shoulder, "Now that's what I call a shrewd guess."
"Ho-ho," the sheriff said sourly. He opened the safe, selected a fat brown envelope from a stack and held it out. "Here's your blood money—three thousand dollars. Now if you got other business to attend to, don't let me keep you."
"Thanks." The Man With No Name counted the money carefully before stowing it away under the poncho. "By the way, there was a young pup—kind of unhealthy looking, with almost white hair. He made the bad mistake of trying to back No Nose's play."
The sheriff's head jerked up sharply. "The she-kid! That's what we called him—or it. Him and No Nose had what Doc Peters calls a 'unnatural relationship.'"
"That probably explains why he was bawling like a baby when he tried to put a slug in my back."
Sheriff Prack nodded. "It would. The kid never done anything big enough or bad enough to get a bounty on his head, so what did you do with him?"
"Left him to the vultures."
"You just don't give one damn about a human life, do you? If there ain't a bounty, there ain't no value."
"Wrong, sheriff. You've no idea how much value I put on my own life."
"When the bounty notice is posted," the sheriff said, "I only hope you ain't too disappointed, Mr. Whatever-Your-Name-Is." He slapped his forehead. "Hell an' Maria, I damn near forgot about the receipt. The law says I got to fill out a receipt form and have you sign for the money so's the tax-payin' voters will know I didn't run off with it myself." He rummaged through several desk drawers and pigeonholes and finally came up with a dog-eared pad of printed forms and a chewed stump of pencil. He wet the pencil and held it above the pad. "Now let's have your full name."
The sheriff started to write and stopped abruptly. He glared at The Man From Nowhere. "What the hell do yuh mean 'no name,'
got a name. What are
—an orphint or something?"
"Maybe everybody has, but it's his
name. I don't recall any law says he has to give it away to every Tom, Dick and Harry with a paper and pencil. Put down Jiggaree Jurinupus or any fool name you want and I'll sign it that way."
The sheriff's face was taking on a deepening color. He slammed down the pencil. "Oh, you're a real bunch of laughs, ain't you? Only it just so happens I forgot to put on my goddam laughin' pants today. So you just smart up and start talkin' sense. I run this here office by the law, and the law says I got to get this here goddam signed re..."
His mouth remained open but the words trailed off, lost in a sudden crash of music somewhere close by on the dusty street. There were the pure, soaring notes of a trumpet, the scrape of a fiddle, wheezy notes of a pump organ and the booming of a bass drum. Punctuating the beat was the steady, rhythmic roaring of what sounded like some gigantic and savage beast.
From up and down the street came the banging of doors, a babble of excited voices and the pound of running feet on the board sidewalks. People went streaming past, shouting excitedly back and forth as they ran in the direction of the music.
A resonant male voice boomed, "Stay back, you kids! Keep far away from that cage if you don't want to get eaten alive. That's the most fee-rocious African lion in captivity and if he takes the notion he wants boy-meat for breakfast, he'll snap those iron bars like match sticks."
The sheriff bolted out of his chair and galloped for the door with the hunter at his heels. They burst out just as the source of the music drew abreast and came to a stop.
There were three large, canvas-topped covered wagons that had apparently begun their existence as more or less conventional Conestoga-type prairie schooners. What had been done to them subsequently, however, probably had the builders spinning in their graves.
Emblazoned across each sun-bleached canvas was the legend: "DANDY DEEVER'S WORLD-REKNOWNED CIRCUS!" This was painted in a glaring red, shaded with gold and embellished with elaborate curlicues. Wagon beds and wheels were painted a matching shade of red and striped with gold. Gilded tin bathtubs were slung under the beds of the first two wagons. Fastened to the tailgate of the third was an iron cage containing a sleepy lion whose mane and coat looked as if a convention of moths had met in it.
The driver of the lead wagon was too elegantly clothed to be any other than the "Dandy" Deever of the signs. He was alternately beating a base drum and stroking a length of rawhide attached to the drumshell. With each pull on the thong, the drum emitted the snarling roar of some fearsome jungle beast.
The driver of the second wagon was a handsome blonde amazon, tall and generously proportioned. Beside her on the wagon seat was a slender but
ushly built copy of herself, obviously her daughter, dressed in spangled tights. The girl sat facing backward in order to play a pump-organ that stood framed between the canvas curtains of the top.
The wagon carrying the caged lion was driven by a hulking moose of a man who held the reins in one hand and a trumpet in the other. The instrument had seen better days, but the music that poured from it had a heart-wrenching sweetness. At the rear of his wagon the ancient lion blinked sleepily at the trailing crowd and obliged with an occasional coughing roar that displayed all the ferocity of an overaged tomcat.
The dapper man set the wagon brake, leaped down and came bounding over like an animated tailor's dummy, the tails of his fine broadcloth frock coat whipping behind. He stopped a few feet away, planted his fists on his hips and cocked his head.
"Are you...? Yes, you've just got to be. Big man, sandy red hair, handsome, capable, acts slow-moving to fool outlaws. The description fits to a T. You've just got to be the famous Sheriff Jess Prack we've heard so much about."