Read A Coffin Full Of Dollars Online

Authors: Joe Millard

Tags: #Western

A Coffin Full Of Dollars (4 page)

The hunter used the moments of rapt attention to drift a few feet closer to his quarry. The move carried him to the edge of the crowd where he would have a clear field of fire if the trouble broke out. It also put a thick knot of spectators between himself and his deadly rival.

On the stage Dandy was bellowing, "And now, the climax of our performance, the most sensational and baffling illusion ever shown by any circus anywhere. It is an act that has mystified kings and commoners the world over. La-deez an' gentul-men—the mystery of the empty coffin."

Laura and her mother had opened the canvas flaps covering the entrance to the dressing tent and were tying them back. Hunk Bannister came from inside the tent, wheeling an ornate black coffin on its catafalque. He positioned this between the tied-back flaps and tipped the coffin up so the audience could see its empty silk-lined interior.

Molly brought a stool and helped Laura climb into the coffin and lie down, full length. She peeped over the edge and waved to the crowd before Molly lowered and fastened the coffin lid. On the stage, Dandy opened a polished case and took out a dueling pistol with an enormous bore. He made an elaborate production out of charging it with powder and ramming down the wadding, diverting attention momentarily from the coffin.

Molly and Hunk stepped back as Dandy hopped down from the stage, leveled the pistol and fired point blank at the coffin. The echoes of the shot were still booming across the flat when he unsnapped the lid and threw it open. Hunk stepped forward to tip it up once more so everyone could see that the padded interior was completely empty.

The crowd was still gasping and gaping over that when there was a distant call. A rider on a black horse was coming down the slope of the ridge. As they drew near, everybody could see that the rider was a lushly built blonde in spangled tights, a slender counterpart of Molly Deever.

Dandy lifted the megaphone to his lips. "You all recognize our daughter, Laura, who just entertained you on the high trapeze. Now give her a big hand for the most incredible act on earth."

Even The Man With No Name found himself joining in the deafening applause. He looked across and saw that Shadrach still had his right hand inside the frock coat, but his left was, perhaps unconsciously, slapping his thigh as a contribution to the ovation.

The girl had jumped down and was taking low, sweeping bows in acknowledgment of the applause. She was no more than a dozen feet from the hunter, whose eyes suddenly widened.

Under his breath he murmured, "I'll be—damned!"

CHAPTER 6

Then, as now, there were a great many self-appointed authorities on guns and gunfighters. Most of them were and are scornful of the art of fanning a single-action sixgun—holding the trigger back and sweeping the heel of the left hand across the hammer to fire with virtually machine-gun rapidity. They agree almost unanimously that while fanning gives lightning speed, that speed is gained at the expense of accuracy.

No gun-fanner, they insist, could hit the broad side of a barn unless he were inside the barn. No gunfighter who ever survived long enough to make his mark on the bloody annals of the West, they aver, ever fanned his gun in a showdown. The idea that any of them ever filed off the cocking dog and weakened the hammer-spring is scornfully dismissed as an invention of fiction writers who had never been west of the Hudson River.

It is interesting to note that not one of these detractors of gun-fanning ever saw The Man With No Name in action. The heavy callous on the heel of his left hand was not built there by a pool cue.

*****

The girl in the spangled tights tried to ignore the ribald comments shouted by One-Eye and his drunken companions, although they brought a deep flush to her cheeks. She took a final bow and darted into the dressing tent.

The five had lurched to their feet and were polishing off the last of the whiskey. The white-whiskered Panhandle drained the bottle and hurled it under the stage.

He hiccupped and roared, "What're we standin' around out here for when we can all have up a sweet piece of that inside the tent?"

"Go ahead," One-Eye whooped. "Me, I got my eye on a
real
ride—that big momma. She's my kind and size of woman."

He started a weaving course toward the tent and the rest staggered after him, bawling obscenities. Dandy, his face the color of chalk, sprang down from the stage and ran to intercept them. Hunk, looking frightened but determined, jumped in front of the entrance to the tent. The fact that neither had a gun made the gestures more heroic than practical.

The sheriff, also weaponless and struggling to keep his trousers up, howled, "Stop it, you men! Stop right there."

"Hold it, you fellows," Dandy yelped. "Now, hold it! That's my wife and my daughter you're talking about and I won't stand for it."

One-Eye snatched out his gun and swung it in a vicious circle. There was a loud
whap
and Dandy went down, his eyes glazed. Hunk Bannister started forward in a brave but futile move.

The Man With No Name flung the poncho up and over his right shoulder as he stepped out into the clear. A glance had showed him that momentarily Shadrach was blocked and cut off by the audience.

"Previs! Panhandle!" His voice cracked like Molly Deever's bullwhip. "That's as far as you go—in that direction. I'm taking you in."

The quintet lurched around, almost losing their balance, to gape in disbelief. For the first time Previs's single bloodshot eye focused on the poncho, the black hat, the stub of cigar. He had never seen the hunter in his life but, like practically every outlaw, he knew that costume by bloody reputation. It was the way the hunter wanted it, to be recognized and to have that recognition force the sudden explosive showdown.

"It's him," One-Eye bawled. "The bounty killer! Get him!"

He was whipping up his own gun when the hunter's slug took him between the eyes. The others were grabbing for their guns. The hunter's .44 was tight against his hip for steadiness. His left hand swept across the hammer almost too fast for the eye to follow.

The four shots sounded almost as one, and the surviving four gun-hawks went down. Not one of their weapons had completely cleared its leather.

At the first sign of trouble the crowd had scattered and flung itself flat to the ground. The hunter turned and looked them over carefully, frowning and shaking his head. He snapped out the cylinder of his gun and plucked out the four empty shells, replacing them with fresh cartridges from his belt.

He studied the empties thoughtfully, rattling them together in his palm before dropping them to the ground. He looked again at the audience, slowly getting up, now that the gunplay seemed over. He toed the empty cartridge cases on the ground, counting them again.

There were four empties, indicating that he had fired four shots. But five men lay dead.

Somehow he could not shake off the strong feeling that the fifth shot had come from the fourteen-inch barrel of Shadrach's custom-made gun. But his deadly rival was nowhere in sight. In the excitement of the flare-up he had slipped away. It made no sense but neither did any other interpretation.

*****

Except for an ugly purple swelling along the side of his jaw, Dandy Deever was fully recovered, although his normal ebullience was noticeably restrained. He shook his head for the umpteenth time, regarding the bounty hunter with open awe.

"I can't believe it. I was a little dazed but I wasn't out cold and I saw the whole thing. My God, such shooting!
Bang-bang-bang
—just like that, and every one right between the eyes. Hey, your glass is empty, friend. A man saves our lives, we can't for godsakes let him sit with an empty glass."

They were sitting at a rough pine table in front of the dressing tent in the evening's cool. The afternoon's crowd had dispersed, a wagon had hauled away the bodies and The Man With No Name was fifteen hundred dollars richer. The sheriff, wearing what were obviously his Sunday-go-to-meeting trousers, had delivered the cash in person.

Laura and Molly were fussing over a cookfire beyond the wagons and the aroma of roasting meat drifted on the evening breeze. Dandy drained the last drops of whiskey into the hunter's glass.

"Molly! Laura!" he bellowed. "More medicine, quick! I feel a snakebite coming on."

Laura, now clad in a dress, brought a full bottle of whiskey. Seen at close range she was an unusually attractive girl. She smiled at the bounty hunter and set the bottle in front of Dandy.

"Go easy on the stuff, Pa. You know what it can do to you."

"My dear child," Dandy said, with an exaggerated air of injured dignity, "after today's ordeal, I consider myself entitled to tie on a real hell-banger. However, I don't intend to—
this
time."

The hunter took a sip from his glass and asked casually, "What's your sister's name?"

"Cora," she said, then yelped in dismay and clapped a hand to her mouth. "You rat, you tricked me." She glared at her father. "
You
told him. You had to go and blab before we had our fun."

"I did not," Dandy protested. "I didn't tell him a thing."

"Your sister gave it away accidentally," the hunter said. "When she was bowing in your place after the coffin trick, I noticed a little dab of heavy makeup behind her ear where she missed it. Since you weren't wearing makeup, she had to be a twin sister who also played Bobo the clown."

Laura wrinkled her nose at him, then called, "Come on out, sis. The beans are spilled all over the lot."

"I know. I heard the whole thing," Cora Deever said, stepping out of the dressing tent. She smiled at the hunter. "Gun-play isn't the only thing you're fast at, I see."

Seen side by side, the identical twins were astonishingly alike in every detail. Dandy was watching the hunter's expression.

"Isn't it the damnedest thing? If I could just figure out some kind of a human shell game with 'em, I'd clean up a fortune. Would you believe it, sometimes even I can't tell 'em apart and they play merry hell with me."

Cora said, "At least, now I can thank you in person for saving mother and me from what they call a fate worse than death." She loosed a peal of laughter. "Look at him! Our big, bold gunslinger is actually
blushing
."

*****

When supper was over, Molly and the two girls went off to wash the dishes. Hunk, who had spoken perhaps a dozen words in a soft New Orleans drawl, had drifted back to his wagon. Dandy filled the hunter's whiskey glass and his own. He was not drunk but the liquor had loosened a tongue that was not quite as free-swinging normally as it seemed.

"Those bastards," he said. "They busted up the show today just when I was set to clean up a bundle of money."

"I thought it was all over," the hunter said, "that the coffin trick was the end of the performance."

"It was—but the beginning of the golden flood, friend." He rapped his knuckles on the table. "Right here's where the
real
profit begins. Here's where I introduce the suckers to the ageless mysteries of three-card monte and which walnut shell the pea is under."

"You're a gambler?"

Dandy winced. "Don't use that term on me, friend. Gamblers take risks and lose their shirts. I only bet on a sure thing and I make sure I never lose."

He gestured and three playing cards seemed to sprout beyond the tips of his fingers. He slapped them down face-up to reveal the queen of spades, king of diamonds and ace of hearts.

"You familiar with three-card monte, friend?"

"Not familiar enough to ever win at it," the hunter said dryly.

Dandy laughed, "You aren't supposed to. Nobody but the monte-thrower—the fellow running the game—is
ever
supposed to win. The only time the sucker is allowed to win is when he's being set up for a killing." He turned the three cards face-down and slid around, changing their positions in the row. "Now which one do you think is the queen of spades?"

"I'd say it
ought
to be that one," the hunter said, pointing, "but from expensive experience, I'm pretty sure it isn't."

"And how right you are," Dandy said, tipping up the indicated card to reveal the ace of hearts. "You couldn't win even if I gave you three chances." He turned over the other cards to reveal the king of diamonds and the jack of clubs. The queen of spades had mysteriously vanished.

"You're pretty cute," the hunter said. "How would you like to turn both hands palms-up to show they're empty?"

Dandy grinned at him. "How would you like to go to hell, my friend?"

"Or maybe you'd like to tell me how Laura slips out of that coffin in plain sight of the crowd."

Dandy sobered. "That, friend, is a secret that'll go to my grave with me. Not even Hunk knows, and he's standing right beside the coffin the whole time. I've been offered money—
big
money—to tell how the trick is worked. I turned it down, and with me, turning down money hurts worse than getting all my teeth pulled by a painless dentist."

"I didn't figure you'd tell," the hunter said. He lit a
cigarro
and pushed back from the table. "It's about time to be moseying on."

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