Authors: Joe Millard
"Keep talking," Shadrach growled.
"On the off-chance I'm wrong about the money being in one of the wagons, we've got to keep Dandy alive and able to talk until we actually get our hands on it. Apachito was about ready to kill him on the spot, just for the hell of it. I threw Dandy a cue and he took it up, just as I'd hoped. Now Apachito'll do almost anything to keep Dandy alive until what he thinks is time to grab off that reward money. I was only trying to buy us all some time and I guess it worked."
"All right, all right," Shadrach said, throwing up his hands. "I said you were the greatest con man and you prove it by conning me into going along with your reasoning. Now what do we do next? Gather up all their guns and gun belts and lock them up somewhere, just in case?"
"A good idea. But first I'd like a quick look into those other cabins before it gets any darker. Lupo left our guns somewhere when he went to get the handcuffs. I prefer the feel and balance of my own iron and I imagine you'd rather have your oversize cannon than that peashooter you're carrying now."
"Amen to that," Shadrach said with feeling.
The outlaws known as Chico and Sam sat on the ledge above the tunnel's mouth and stared glumly into the thickening dusk. Sam's stomach rumbled loudly and he cursed it.
"How the hell much longer does he expect us to guard this damn hole without our suppers? I'm so starved already I could eat a horse."
"He told us to stay here until we were relieved," the one called Chico said, "but he did not say when that might be."
"By now he's prob'ly forgot all about us. Him and the others are prob'ly stuffin' themselves and passing a bottle, while we sit here and gut-rumble. Look, Chico, it don't take two of us to guard this damn tunnel. Why don't I keep watch while you go back and find out about our grub and relief?"
"Oh, no," Chico said hastily. "Not me, Sam. The minute he sees me he
ll remember where I'm supposed to be and all hell'll likely bust loose. No, thanks."
"Then, dammit, you keep watch here and
go. I ain't all
scared of Apachito. So let him get sore. He's s
handed now he ain't likely to do more'n yell at me an' I been yelled at before."
Chico shrugged. "Go ahead, Sam. It's your neck."
Sam hopped down from the ledge and set off, habit guiding his feet along a path it was already too dark to see. He came to the edge of the woods near the row of cabins and suddenly stopped, scowling. Something was all wrong but it took his sluggish mind a while to realize exactly what. Then the clues began to come to him, one at a time.
Over by the circus wagons, a small cookfire was burning, the figure of the big woman silhouetted against it. But the big fire that should be blazing in front of Apachito's headquarters cabin at mealtimes had not been built. No lamplight shone from any of the cabin windows.
Sam's first thought was, "Them sonsabitches! They've gone off somewhere and clean forgot us."
Then he saw a number of strange-looking objects scattered around the ground near the wagon park. At that distance they were only vague shapes in the deepening dusk. But whatever they were, they had no business being where they were. Apachito was one to raise hell if tools or equipment were left lying around.
He stepped out from among the trees and started along the edge of the clearing toward the mysterious objects. He was almost upon them before he recognized them as gun belts, with the guns still in their holsters. The full impact struck him then. He whirled and dived for cover among the deeper shadows under the trees.
He barely reached it when the door of Apachito's headquarters opened and two men came out. Even in the gloom, he could recognize the tall figure in the poncho and his companion wearing a long frock coat.
They passed within two or three yards of where Sam was crouching against the wall of one of the cabins. The one he had heard called No Name had the poncho tossed back over his shoulder and was replacing one holstered gun with another. The extra he tucked into his waistband before letting the poncho drop down again. The other man had the frock coat open and was holstering a pistol with the longest barrel Sam had ever seen over his left hip, angled for a lightning cross-belly draw.
The two went by and stopped, looking down at the scattered gun belts and talking in low voices. After a long and inaudible discussion, the man in the frock coat nodded. Both of them squatted and started gathering up the gun belts, draping them over their arms.
At the same moment, Sam suddenly became aware that he was hearing the sounds of movement and the low mutter of angry talk. The sounds were coming from the barred window, just over his head.
"Once you get used to the grip and balance of a particular gun," the hunter said, dropping the front of the poncho back down, "no other feels quite right even if it's exactly the same make and model."
"I know what you mean," Shadrach said. "I'm so accustomed to adjusting my walk to the weight of Betsy on my left hip that I felt naked with the weight of an ordinary-size gun." He stopped, the two of them looking down at the gun belts. "Have you decided what to do with these? We didn't see any place where they could be safely locked up."
"It's a problem," the bounty hunter said. "I wouldn't want them where those buzzards might stumble onto them on the off chance that they got loose, somehow."
"One of Dandy's circus wagons, maybe?"
"Too obvious. That's the second place they'd look after the cabins." He snapped his fingers. "I think I've got it. I was hiding in a patch of bushes just behind the wagons. They're so dense you could hide a cannon in them. It would be an ideal place to dump all the gun belts for the time being."
"Sounds okay to me," Shadrach said, nodding.
They squatted down and began to gather up the discarded belts and guns. From the fire by the circus wagons Dandy's voice bawled, "Grub's on!"
"You folks start," the hunter called back. "We'll join you in a couple of minutes."
They stood up, their arms draped with the belts, and headed back into the woods. A shadow detached itself from the wall of the jail cabin and drifted after them.
They returned a few moments later, empty-handed. As they headed out toward the circus wagons, Shadrach studied his companion from beneath lowered lids.
"Earlier today," he said after a time, "you mentioned a strong hunch where the money is probably hidden. Maybe you'd better tell me, so in case anything goes wrong and one of us doesn't survive, the other can still cash in."
"Uh-uh!" the hunter said, grinning sardonically. "We based our partnership on trust—remember? I agreed to trust you as far as I could throw a bull by the tail, and you had the same faith in me. So if I told you my hunch, I'd lie awake all night, watching to see that you don't grab it all and make off with it. As a growing boy, I need my sleep. So I'd rather keep it to myself and let
lie awake and worry,
"Oh, well," Shadrach said, shrugging, "it was worth a small try, anyhow. Obviously, you noticed something I overlooked, but if I set my mind to it, I'll see it, too."
"Go right ahead. But you'd be a lot better off if you'd go somewhere and practice your cross-belly draw and leave the brain department to me."
The supper, from a culinary standpoint, was up to Molly's usual high standard, but in the conversational department it had all the bright sparkle of a wet sponge. Dandy was a bundle of uncharacteristic jumpy nerves. Obviously he was on edge trying to guess whether or not the two had swallowed all or any part of his story of returning the money. Equally nerve-racking would be the question of what, in either case, they intended to do to him.
Molly, busy watching Da
ndy and worrying over his well
being, was unnaturally silent. Shadrach and the hunter were in no mood to indulge in light chatter with the rascal who had swindled, or attempted to swindle, them and largely confined any communication to silent glares. Laura made a futile effort to extract more than grunts from the reticent Hunk, then lapsed into her own thoughts. Cora, whose clown makeup was beginning to dry and crack off, stayed well away from the firelight.
The hunter and Shadrach drained their tin coffee cups and stood up. Molly sprang to her feet.
"Wait a minute. You don't have your bedrolls but we have extra blankets. I'll get you each a pair." She rushed to her wagon and returned almost immediately with warm coverings for both. "You're more than welcome to sleep here by our fire."
"Thank you, ma'am," the hunter said, "for the thought as well as the fine supper. But I plan to bed down close to that jail cabin where I can hear if Apachito and his pack make a try at breaking out. He's too slick and clever a scoundrel to just sit down and wait for the hangman's knot to be tied."
"All right," Molly said. She hesitated, then blurted, "I can't thank you enough for all you've done for us." In the firelight her eyes suddenly glistened with unshed tears. "Please, please don't think too harshly of Dandy." She turned and rushed off around the wagons.
The hunter swore softly and murmured, "When I think of what that s.o.b. has done to us. I'd like to wrap my hands around his lying throat. But when I see what he does to Molly, I'd rather bend him over and put boot-prints all over the seat of his intelligence."
"I wouldn't be a bit surprised," Shadrach said, "but what we'll soon get a chance to do both."
He got out the meerschaum pipe and the hunter one of his stubby
. They lit up and strolled back to the edge of the woods, trailing clouds of fragrant smoke. A checkup showed the jail door still bolted, the window bars solidly in place. With the comfortable feeling that they had the situation firmly under control, they spread their blankets a few yards out from the front of the jail and were almost immediately asleep.
The dream was a vehicle that carried the bounty hunter back through time to a day when he had been just another reckless young ranch hand, tackling any dirty or dangerous job on the spread for his ten-a-month and keep. The scene was so real that he found himself involuntarily looking around with the expectation of seeing Carvell.
He turned his head from side to side, then twisted his neck to peer around behind his back. Carvell was standing no more than a dozen yards away, feet planted apart in the familiar pose, his right hand almost brushing the butt of his gun, his thick lips twisted in a mocking grin that revealed dirty and broken teeth.
Carvell was a few years older and a more experienced hand, but a blustering braggart and a bully. He claimed the five notches hacked into the checkered walnut grips of his gun represented five men he had killed in shoot-outs. He was competent enough at his job but his greatest talent lay in his ability to push the harder or more unpleasant jobs off on one of the other hands.
From the day the younger man came to work on the ranch he had been the object of Carvell's special vindictiveness. It was chiefly a matter of sheer jealousy. While the younger man lacked experience, he had a rare knack for picking up needed skills with almost casual ease. There was no open clash between the two but the new hand soon found himself the target of petty harassments.
As the youngest hand, he was naturally dubbed "the Kid" and so called by everyone. But in Carvell's dirty mouth the simple, traditional nickname sounded like an obscene epithet. The rivalry finally came to a head after Satan killed Lansing.
Satan was a magnificent black stallion that Colonel Akers, the ranch owner, had bought for a song because no one had been able to break him. No man to pass up a bargain, the Colonel had the black brought to the ranch and offered a modest bounty to any hand who could break him. A handful of the more daring tried and were thrown within a few seconds. The Colonel finally sent for Bib Lansing, a professional horse-breaker, who was reputed to be the best in the Territory.
Lansing studied Satan for a lon
time, walking around and around the splendid animal and shaking his head. Finally he came over to the Colonel, who was perched on the corral fence with his hands.
"I'm not a man to weasel-word, Colonel. I'll ride him if you insist, but I'll put it to you straight. Neither I nor anybody else will ever break that horse. He's a born man-hater. He'll kill a rider or himself before he'll knuckle under to anyone. I'll be wasting your money."
"Poppycock!" the Colonel snorted. "The horse that can't be broken hasn't been bo
. I've got too much invested in the brute already to sell him to a glue factory. I have to pay you for your trip, anyhow, so go ahead and ride him."
Satan was roped and cinched up tight to the snubbing post. A scarf used as a blindfold kept the great horse quiet while he was being saddled and bridled. Lansing eased himself into the saddle and waved a hand. The ropes were released, the blindfold whipped away and all hell broke loose.
The big black exploded like a keg of dynamite, rearing, sunfishing, buck-jumping across the corral. Lansing stayed in the saddle longer than any other rider had but inevitably his departure time came. A particularly vicious jump sent Satan's rider flying.