Authors: Joe Millard
Dandy was scowling at the table top. "When I insisted on your staying for supper, I had in mind putting a proposition to you, but the more I think about it the more I think I'd be wasting my breath."
"I'm a good listener," the bounty hunter said. "Give it a try."
"I had the fool idea I could persuade you to throw in with us, doing an act with your fancy gunslinging and crack shooting. I'd bill you as the deadliest gun in the Southwest, or some such, and we'd work out a lot of showy tricks for you to perform. But I can see now I must have been slugged sillier than I realized to think you'd be interested."
The hunter was frowning in thought. He rasped fingers through the fringe of beard along his jawline.
"Deadliest gun in the Southwest," he murmured. "Every gunslinger around who thinks he's good would take that as a personal challenge and try to boost his reputation by outgunning me."
"I know," Dandy said glumly, "but I didn't think about that at first. I can see why you wouldn't go for it."
"Tell me, Dandy, will your outfit be moving down anywhere near the Misfortune Mountains any time soon?"
Dandy looked up, startled. "Why, yes. We play Hangville every year. It's one of our best money towns and it's less than five miles from Crazy Woman Pass."
The hunter leaned forward and put his elbows on the table.
"Let's hear the rest of your proposition. There's a good chance I might be interested."
From Los Ydros the circus cavalcade moved south and west toward the town of Anamitas. Its arrangement followed a long established pattern. Laura rode with her mother, Cora sat beside Dandy in the lead wagon, ready to dive inside out of sight in case they encountered anyone on the trail or when they neared town. To be discovered and exposed as identical twins would rob the empty coffin illusion of its greatest impact.
Hunk Bannister trailed in the third wagon with Elmer the lion. Occasionally one of the girls would ride with him for a while, but he was a shy and uncommunicative man who seemed to prefer his own company. Instead he would drive for hours, pouring out his pent-up thoughts and feelings in strange, soft music from his trumpet.
The Man With No Name preferred horseback, riding beside Dandy's seat so they could work out the details of his shooting act. Dandy's lively imagination and sure sense of showmanship supplied most of the general effects, while the hunter's practical experience added the technical refinements. Occasionally Cora interjected ideas. Between them an outstanding act was taking shape, one that would be both a lure and a challenge to every gun-slick or would-be gun-slick in the Territory.
"I don't like it," Molly Deever said flatly. "I don't like it one little bit. If I'd known what you two were cooking up, I'd have put my foot down on the whole thing—or on your stupid necks if necessary." She glared at The Man From Nowhere. "If you're determined to commit suicide, that's your business, but when you decide to do it on our doorstep, then it's
"Aw, now, Molly," Dandy said placatingly, "don't get yourself all in a stew. You saw with your own eyes how good No Name is with a gun. His act'll be the sensation of the Territory."
"So will his funeral," she snapped. "We've known other men who were good with a gun, too. Maybe not as good as him, but good enough to get a reputation. And where are they now? Somebody always came along who was just a shade better, and that was that."
"Well, it's too late to back out now, big honey. I've spread the word of his shooting all over Anamitas. If folks pay their money and don't see him make good on my brags, I'd likely get lynched."
"And if some liquored-up punks start throwing lead and innocent people get killed or hurt, you're bound to be. The mood I'm in right now, I'd probably give 'em a hand with the rope."
The bounty hunter eased himself around the back of the parked wagon and departed. In his considered opinion, a gunfight was a picnic compared to a family quarrel. He busied himself with laying out the guns and props he would use in his act. The first customers were already arriving for the show.
He studied the faces of the arrivals and was mildly disappointed that none of them matched the images on his mental bounty list. His act was too new, its challenge not yet widely enough circulated to attract the quarry he was seeking. As a bounty hunter he had developed a deep reserve of patience and now was a time to draw heavily upon that reserve.
He was puzzled and faintly bothered at not seeing Shadrach in the audience. Somehow he had felt certain the scarred man would return to make good his death threat. He had already had ample opportunity to ambush the hunter or meet him in a face-out, yet his actions so far had been completely out of character with his sinister reputation. Either Shadrach was not the epitome of evil he had been branded, or he was using his rival as a pawn in some dark and devious game of his own.
But if there were no money faces in the crowd, there was the usual complement of trouble faces. These were swaggering small-time toughs, drunk on whiskey but even drunker on the delusion that they were invincible bad men. Every town seemed to have its share of the breed, beardless punks for the most part, simply because so few of them survived long enough to grow the emblem of masculine maturity. Even fewer had either the brains or the nerve to attain the ultimate status of appearing on a reward poster.
It was mainly because of these gun-toting nuisances that he had set his shooting act for the windup of the day's program, following the Empty Coffin Mystery. He had overcome Dandy's opposition with the one irresistible argument.
"If the act goes on early, the way you want it, and there's trouble, it could bust up the rest of the show. Then people are going to want their money back, and that'd hurt. But if it happens at the end, nobody can holler because they've already seen everything they paid for."
"You know," Dandy had said thoughtfully, "you're damn near smart enough to be a circus man yourself. In fact, Mr. Nameless, you're a lot smarter than I gave you credit for. When we made our deal, I offered you half what I thought you'd be worth to me. When you grabbed it without an argument I thought you were a chump. Now I'm beginning to realize which one of us was the
circus draws wanted outlaws and
gun them down for a fat bounty. I even pay for the shells you use."
"So I think we
ll make a
collect half of every reward you knock off. What do you say to that?"
No, my royal pratt! I've got a big investment in this circus, friend, and if you think ..." He looked at the expressionless face, the icy, slitted eyes and his voice trailed off. What he was actually seeing was a hand slapping the hammer of a gun and five dead bodies, each with a neat hole above the bridge of his nose. He added limply, "It was just an idea. If it doesn't appeal to you, forget it."
On the stage, Dandy was introducing, "The deadliest gun in the West," with colorful hyperbole. The Man With No Name strode to a wooden stand on which lay a half-dozen loaded pistols, including the gaudy sidearm of the late No Nose Megley, with his own lever-action Winchester rifle and open boxes of shells. In front, a broad area had been roped off to prevent anyone's wandering into the field of fire. Within this were the various targets on which he would demonstrate his skill.
Dandy finished his spiel and Hunk punctuated it with a flourish on his trumpet. The crowd applauded.
The bounty hunter opened his act with a dazzling exhibition of gun-spinning, using the glittering pride of the late No Nose, deceased, as his prop. One moment the gun was spinning, flipping from hand to hand or up from behind, over his shoulder and into his hand. The next moment it was flat against his hip, his left hand slapping the hammer in a blur of motion, the shots running together like a burst from a Gatling machine gun.
Some distance down range were six paper targets with the bull's-eyes cut out and replaced by small discs of iron. These suddenly rang like gongs as the six iron bull's-eyes were sent flying by lead slugs.
Laura or Cora (he could never be certain which) stepped out with a handful of poker chips and commenced tossing them, one at a time, high in the air. The hunter snatched up two pistols and began firing alternately, the right gun and the left. By the time both were empty, twelve chips had been shattered in midair. The crowd burst into thunderous applause.
When one loaded pistol remained on the stand, he took up the rifle instead. Far down the range a high wooden frame had been erected. Seven empty bottles were suspended from this by thin cords. The hunter took careful aim with the rifle and squeezed the trigger.
The slug cut the first cord neatly. As the bottle commenced to drop, he snatched up the pistol and fired one shot that shattered it before it touched the ground. The feat was duplicated five more times until the pistol was empty. Six cords had been clipped, six bottles smashed. The seventh bottle still hung from the frame, swaying gently in the breeze.
The rifle slammed again, the cord parted and the remaining bottle plummeted downward. The hunter's hand dived under the poncho and out again, almost too fast for the eye to follow, bringing his own pistol. His single shot broke the bottle a foot above the ground.
He nodded to the cheering audience and turned away from the stand, indicating that his act was over. Replacing the spent shell as he walked, he tucked the gun away. His debut as a circus performer had gone off smoothly and well. Now it was only a matter of waiting for the news of his skill to reach the proper ears.
Behind him on the stage, Dandy was shouting, "That ends our regular performance, ladies and gentlemen, but for those of yo
with sporting blood, the real fun is about to begin. You spent good money to be here. Now I'm going to give you a chance to win it back, ten times over."
Hunk had placed the board table in front of the dressing tent and was laying out packs of cards, dice and the walnut half-shells that were Dandy's stock in trad
The hunter went on to the parked wagons. He had left his saddle under one of them, his bedroll still lashed across the cantle. He glanced down in passing and was brought up short.
A slip of white paper was sticking out of a fold of the bedroll. He squatted down and pulled it out. The slip was completely blank, but no message was really necessary. The paper's presence told him plainer than words that some time during his act, Shadrach had come and gone, leaving this unspoken taunt to mock him.
He heard the outburst of angry voices a moment before Laura (or Cora) came running, crying, "Dandy's in trouble. Help him! Oh, please help him!"
The bounty hunter ran past her without waiting to ask questions. Knowing Dandy's penchant for rigged games, none were really necessary.
He ran around the dressing tent just as the crowd of men in front of the board table fell back, scrambling to open a broad clear space. In the middle of this space was a man the hunter had noticed earlier and scornfully labeled a gun-punk. He had been drunk at the beginning of the performance and time had produced no notable sobering effect.
He was just far enough beyond the "beardless" age to have a scattering of fine peach-fuzz on his face, but not far enough beyond to have acquired any degree of mature judgment. He wore a heavy .45 with the holster tied down to his leg in imitation of the genuine gun-hawks. As the ultimate in amateurishness, three pronounced notches had been hacked in the walnut grip. He stood a few feet back from the table, feet planted wide apart, clawed hand hovering above the butt of his gun. He was shaking with rage.
Dandy was behind the table, both hands flat on the rough, unfinished pine top, his face ashen. As the hunter charged around the corner of the tent he was saying in a placating voice, "Now, take it easy, friend. Just take it easy. There's no need to resort to violence. If you are under a delusion—and I assure you, friend, it
a delusion—that the game is dishonest, there is a simple solution. Your bet was, I believe, ten dollars. If you will permit me to put one hand in my pocket, I will be happy to give you your ten dollars back."
"I don't want my ten dollars back," the gun-punk squawled in a high, shrill voice. "You stinkin', cheatin' bastard of a crook! I want the hundred dollars I
won if the game'd been on the level. If I don't get it, I'm gonna put a slug right through your lyin' mouth and help myself to
the money you suckered out of these dumb pukes."
"I've got ten dollars that says you aren't," the hunter said softly.
The punk whirled around and his eyes went wide and wary. "Oh, it's
—the deadliest gun in the West, this other phony says. The big shot! Mr. Sure Death on ropes and bottles! How would you do against a
The hunter looked to either side. "If you gentlemen will step back a little further, I'll try to answer junior's silly question."