Authors: Joe Millard
He seized the sheriff's hand and pumped it enthusiastically, then whirled to grab the hunter's hand.
"And you, sir! If there's one thing Dandy Deever does best, it's sizing up men of accomplishment. The moment I saw those steely eyes, that stern jaw, the relentless set of the lips I told myself, there's another lawman, and no mistake about it. A man who doesn't know the meaning of fear."
The sheriff said in a dry voice, "He's a bounty killer. He just drug in a corpse that's still on my floor in there and collected his blood money."
Dandy blinked, gulped and made a fast recovery. "Exactly what I was saying—an utterly fearless man whose deadly gun is always on the side of the law." He snatched out a sheaf of bright green tickets. "Sheriff, if it's all right with you, we'd like to set up on that empty flat at the edge of town. And we'd be honored if you and your missus—saying there
a missus—would be our guests of honor at this afternoon's performance, which starts at two o'clock sharp."
"Well, now," the sheriff said, as if no such momentous honor had ever been accorded him before, "that's mighty kind of you, Mr. Deever. I accept with pleasure, though the missus has been porely for a spell and prob'ly won't feel up to it, herself. It's a pity because we've had some little one-
and two-wagon shows here, but yours is the first
-wagon outfit to honor Los Ydros."
Dandy looked at the hunter, looked down at the remaining tickets and shook his head sadly. "Now if that ain't the limit, friend. I thought I had a free pass for you, but these are all dated next week."
"That's all right," the hunter said pleasantly. "Don't let it disturb you. I figure when a man's put on this earth he's allowed a certain number of lies during his lifetime. As long as he don't abuse the privilege or strain his budget too bad, I can't see there's any great harm done."
They stood side by side at the edge of the board sidewalk, watching the last of the three circus wagons swing off the trail toward the broad flat beyond the edge of town. The hunter finished lighting another
and flipped the match out into the dust of the street. The sheriff swung around.
"That's that. I guess our business is finished, so if you'll kindly excuse me I'll mosey back in and get on with the more important duties of my office."
"The most important of which, I understand," the hunter said, smiling grimly, "is either running down outlaws and killers yourself or cooperating to the fullest extent with those who do. So I'll just mosey along with you and help you fulfill that duty I know you wouldn't skimp on for anything."
Under his breath the sheriff muttered something sounding like "smart-ass bounty killers" and stamped back inside, with the hunter at his heels. He slammed himself down into the desk chair and glowered as The Man From Nowhere hunched onto the edge of his desk. He waved the stub of cigar toward a bounty poster on the wall.
"Is that poster a misprint or are they really offering fifteen thousand dollars for a bandit called Apachito? That's 'Little Apache' in bastard Mex, I take it. That sounds like a helluva lot of
, considering that run-of-the-mill outlaws are a dime a dozen these days."
"It's no misprint and Apachito's no common cutthroat
Him and his gang have got the lower end of the Territory just about paralyzed. Mines are closin' because they dassn't ship out gold or silver. Stage and freight lines are threatenin' to suspend operations unless they get a cavalry escort. Trains have quit runnin' beyond Epocito an' a half-dozen banks have been clean wiped out."
The hunter whistled softly. Between narrowed lids his eyes had taken on a sharp glitter.
"He sounds like an interesting gent. Tell me more."
"Apachito's part Apache, part Comanchero, and all poison-mean. His idea of sport is killin' a man slow to listen to his screams. Four fellers has already tried for that bounty. We buried what was left of 'em at county expense and I can tell you they wasn't pretty. If you're aimin' to be number five, I can guarantee yuh one thing—the finest seven-dollar buryin' to be had anywhere."
"That's mighty big of you, Sheriff. Where does this Apachito character hole up when he ain't out being a boil on the heel of progress?"
"If we knew that, the price on him'd tumble considerable. They've got a hideout somewhere down in the Sierra Malhoras—the Misfortune Mountains—but danged if we could ever find it. A dozen times we've chased 'em into Crazy Woman Pass and had 'em vanish into thin air, practically under our noses. Figurin' out the answer'
either get you rich or drive you crazy."
"I'll settle for rich," the hunter said. He flipped a casual salute and strolled out
The sheriff glared at his departing back, muttering under his breath about "goddam smart-ass bounty killers." His irate gaze dropped to the desktop and discovered the pad of receipt forms. He shot to his feet
, you with the poncho and the sawed-off seegars! You forgot to give me your name and sign the receipt for the reward money."
He snatched pad and pencil, hurdled the remains of the deceased No Nose and charged out the door, only to glare up and down an empty street. The bounty hunter, like the elusive Apachito, had apparently vanished into thin air.
Swearing, he stamped back to his desk, scrawled "Man With No Name" on the receipt and signed it himself with an angry "X."
On the crest of a low ridge overlooking the flat, the bounty hunter reined in and sat looking down on the busy scene below. Although he had heard a great deal about the little wagon shows that were fast becoming an institution in the West, he had never managed to be in the right place at the right time to see one and he was naturally curious. He was equally curious to watch the fast-talking Dandy Deever in action. Also, he reasoned that a circus could be a powerful magnet to lure wanted outlaws from hiding and into range of his gun.
Practically the entire population of Los Ydros, from doddering oldsters to screeching children, had turned out to see the circus. There was no main tent and no seating with the exception of a wooden chair on which the sheriff was enthroned as guest of honor. The remainder of the audience stood, sat or sprawled on the ground in a rough semicircle facing the center of attraction.
The three circus wagons, parked end to end, formed the backdrop. In front of this stood a small, square dressing tent with its sidewalls lowered and the caged lion drowsing in its shade. Adjoining it a high trapeze stood beside an elevated stage of rough lumber on which was the organ and its stool, Dandy's bass drum, a large megaphone and a table with a cover of faded purple velvet. A white horse with a spangled bellyband in lieu of a saddle was picketed behind the stage.
The hunter touched spur to his horse and rode down the slope and across behind the assemblage to a patch of woods adjoining the lot where the circus teams and a few saddle horses were tethered. He found shaded space for the bay and walked back to the crowd. He selected a spot at one end of the semicircle and a little apart, where he could watch both the performance and the audience.
Dandy Deever, elegant in tailcoat and silk topper, was working his way around the semicircle, collecting money and passing out tickets. Eventually he reached the bounty hunter and began automatically,
"Welcome to Dandy Deever's circus, friend. That'll be five dol—" He broke off, his fixed smile of welcome curdling. "Oh, it's
! Somehow I didn't really expect to see you out here."
"You wouldn't have if I'd known what you charge," the hunter said. He got out a drawstring purse and extracted a gold coin. "All I can say is, your show had better be good."
"So had this half-eagle," Dandy said, biting the coin. "But I wouldn't want you to cry yourself to sleep over being a wild spender, so hang around after the performance and I'll give you a chance to win your fortune back, ten times over."
"Now," the hunter said to Dandy's retreating back, "we're getting down to business."
Dandy had taken a half-dozen steps. Suddenly he whirled around, cupping something in his hand.
"By the way, friend, do you happen to have a light?"
The hunter nodded and got out one of the wooden matches, scratching it to light it with a thumbnail. Dandy opened his hand to reveal one of the stubby
. He put it in his mouth and bent to the flame.
"Thanks for the cigar, friend. It's a little strong, but really quite good." He opened his hand again to expose a glistening silvery star. "And I must remember to give the sheriff back his badge before he misses it."
The hunter's mouth opened and then closed without uttering a word. After all, at the moment there was really nothing to say. His hand roved under the poncho, checking to make sure he still had his gun and the shells in his cartridge belt. He had, but Dandy Deever was definitely a character to be watched. A pickpocket that accomplished could be dangerous.
He studied the faces of the audience, alert for any that could mean either danger or profit. His narrowed gaze suddenly settled on the face of a tall man in a frock coat who stood a few paces back from the crowd.
It was an arresting face, deeply bronzed, with wide, high cheekbones and a pointed chin that gave it a distinctive wedge shape. The bounty hunter was positive he had never seen that face before, either in person or on any reward poster, yet it was somehow tantalizingly familiar. He was annoyed and disturbed, since the instant recall of faces was a basic tool of his trade.
The stranger was also scanning the faces of the crowd with more than idle interest. His slitted gaze eventually found the figure in the poncho, lingered on it for a few long moments, then abruptly whipped away. But in those moments a telltale widening of the eyes had clearly betrayed recognition.
Years of living by his wits and gun had endowed the bounty hunter with a kind of sixth sense, a premonition of impending danger. He felt it strongly now and knew that for some unguessable reason this stranger was a mortal enemy—one as deadly as a snake. Under cover of the poncho he twitched the butt of the .44, making certain that when the chips went down the weapon would slip smoothly and freely from its beeswaxed holster.
On the stage Dandy was shouting through the megaphone, introducing the members of the troupe. The big blonde proved to be his wife, Molly Deever, and the slimmer counterpart their daughter, Laura. The huge and talented trumpet player was Hunk Bannister. There was also an unexpected fifth member who had not been previously seen—a clown known as Bobo, dressed in a grotesque, padded costume and thickly smeared with greasepaint. The lion was solemnly introduced as Elmer the maneater and the white horse as Milky.
The four launched into a lively tune while the clown ambled around getting into mischief, pulling Elmer's tail, making clumsy, futile attempts to mount the white horse. The hunter divided his attention between the performance and the mysterious stranger who was also watching him with covert intensity. Under the concealing poncho his hand hovered close to his gun, although the possibility of a fight erupting in the midst of such a crowd seemed remote.
The music had stopped and Dandy was introducing Molly as the "undisputed queen of bullwhip artists." In her strong and capable hand, the twenty feet of rawhide seemed imbued with a life of its own. It whistled and sang and exploded in gunshot reports, keeping time to a brisk tune played on the organ by Laura.
She was better than good—so good, in fact, that the hunter almost forgot to keep an eye on the man in the frock coat. He became suddenly aware that the mystery man had been quietly easing back, away from the seated audience and a few racing, yelling children darting in and out of the crowd.
On the stage the snapping whip was methodically shredding strips of paper held in Dandy's hand. He had donned a gun belt and pistol and put a stump of cigar between his lips. The whip cracked once and the cigar went flying. It cracked again and the heavy sixgun flew out of its holster and landed on the ground, yards from the stage. As a climax, Dandy wedged six wooden matches into a crack at the end of the stage, with their heads up. Molly lit them in succession by snapping each head with the tip of the lash.
The hunter was stepping slowly backward, away from the crowd and out of the path of two boisterous boys, who were happily pursuing a screeching girl in pigtails. The stranger's frock coat was now unbuttoned, his hand inside, positioned for what was unmistakably a cross-belly draw. The sight started a bell of faint recognition ringing in the mind of the bounty hunter. It was almost, but not quite, crystallized when the other turned his head just far enough to reveal his left cheek for the first time.
Slanting back and up across the leathery flesh was a scar in the shape of a Y, with the base starting above the corner of the mouth and the upper tips terminating below the eye and in front of the ear.
With the sight, all the bits and pieces of the puzzle clicked into place and a name blazed up in letters of fire on the screen of the hunter's mind.
The two men had never met, yet each had openly vowed to kill the other on sight.