Authors: Joe Millard
There was a wild scramble as the onlookers fell back. The would-be gun-hawk's eyes shifted nervously. His tongue slid out to moisten lips gone suddenly dry.
"I guess you don't know who you're facin', Mister Showoff," he blustered. "You've heard of Bat McCord."
"Nope. But then, the world's full of pimply-faced nobodies I never heard of. Who is he, your wet nurse?"
"You son of a bitch!" The kid's voice climbed to a screech. "
the man who gunned down Whip Purdy, goddam yuh!"
"So? It probably served him right for turning his back on you. Tell me something, sonny. I've heard that children who play with guns are bed-wetters. Is that true?"
The boy loosed a wordless shriek of rage and grabbed for his gun.
The hunter said, "Naughty, naughty!"
His hand flashed under the poncho and out, holding the .44. It crashed, erupting smoke and flame, and the gun flew out of the youngster's hand, skidding off across the grass. The boy looked down, staring in dull disbelief at his right hand with its broken index finger dangling limply.
The hunter's second shot severed the boy's holster from his belt. It dropped, to dangle ludicrously from its tie-down thong. His third shot ripped off one of the high slanting bootheels. The kid staggered backward, thrown off balance.
"I don't kill women, children or idiots," the hunter said coldly. "Your gun's back there. Go pick it up and clear out."
The youngster, his face chalk white, limped back and bent down. As his left hand was about to close on the weapon, the hunter's gun slammed once more. There was a
of lead on steel and the gun flew another dozen yards.
"Go get it, then keep right on traveling, punk. Some day, if you should live long enough to get to be half as big and tough as you think you are now, look me up. I'll still be around."
As the youth slunk off, Dandy bolted around the table to shake the bounty hunter's hand and pound his shoulder.
"My God, what shooting! What cold nerve! You aren't a gunslinger, man, you're a phenomenon. That's twice you've saved my life in less than a week."
"We all make mistakes," the hunter said. "I hope those don't turn out to be mine."
They finished supper that night by lantern light. Molly and the girls went off to wash the dishes and Dandy brought out the whiskey bottle. He filled the glasses and set it between them.
"One thing I can't figure is why you didn't kill that squirt when you had him cold. Now he'll go around hating you and maybe screwing up his nerve to bushwhack you."
"I'll take that chance. Dead he isn't worth a penny to me now, but he might live long enough to turn up on a bounty poster one day and then I'll cash in."
Dandy shivered. "And I thought
was a cold-blooded bastard."
A little later the bounty hunter was spreading his bedroll when the faint sound of strange music reached his ears. Hunk Bannister was sitting on the tongue of his wagon, blowing softly on his trumpet. He broke off as the hunter approached.
"If my playin' is keepin' you awake, mister, I'll quit it right away."
"No, no, Hunk. Keep right on. But what kind of music is that? I never heard any like it before. I'm not a dancing man but it makes my feet almighty restless."
"They call it 'jazz.' It was borned in the N'Awleans who'e-houses, the big, fancy ones with their own dance bands, and that's about the onliest place you hear it." He added softly, "I—I guess it's for folks like me that don't have a lot of big words that come easy. It does our talkin' for us—our talkin' and our singin' and our cryin'."
South and west. Pionino. Las Quintas. Kreb's Notch. Burning Rock. And beyond that, Hangville, in the shadow of the Sierra Malhoras, the Misfortune Mountains.
At almost every stop there was one or more overly ambitious young budding bad men to be taught discretion and respect for their betters. But it was not all charity work. At Kreb's Notch a familiar face in the crowd, a face he had first seen on a reward notice. This time the crash of gunfire was good for a thousand-dollar bounty.
But it was at Burning Rock that he came within a hair's breadth of cashing in the Big Jackpot.
Dandy was just climbing to the stage to begin his opening spiel when they came riding in—seven of the most vicious, cold-eyed killer types to be found anywhere. The hunter's eyes went wide with the shock of recognition. All seven of the newcomers were wanted killers whose ugly faces leered from the walls of every sheriff's and marshal's office in the Territory.
Six had bounties ranging from two to five thousand dollars on their heads. But it was the seventh man, the leader, who rocked The Man With No Name back on his heels. Squat, thick-bodied, swarthy, with the unmistakable stamp of Indian blood on his features, he was the dread Apachito himself
Mister Fifteen Thousand Dollars, in the language of the bounty-hunting trade.
Under the poncho the hunter's hand closed on the butt of his gun, ready and eager for the explosion of violence he expected to erupt at any moment. The bounties would be rich, and they would be his alone. The only rival with the nerve to challenge him was Shadrach and there had been no sign of him for days.
To his stunned amazement the outlaws picketed their horses, paid Dandy the admission fee without argument and quietly found seat space on the ground. The bounty hunter was mystified but not lulled into lowering his guard.
He considered it highly unlikely that the seven wanted outlaws would risk a bounty killer's bullet or a rope dance from the gallows just to see a circus. He had a strong hunch that he himself was the real object of their visit. At least two, and possibly all five, of the toughs he had gunned down at Los Ydros had been members of Apachito's gang. This could well be a mission of vengeance.
The hunter kept a wary eye on the group but they merely sat, quiet and seemingly intent, while the performance moved smoothly toward its climax, Laura vanished from the closed coffin and Cora rode in to complete the illusion and take the bows. The thunderous applause finally subsided and the bounty hunter stepped up to his gun stand as Dandy launched into his introduction.
This was the moment when The Man With No Name had half-expected the outlaws to make their move, but nothing happened. He knew, then, what their scheme was and when they intended to put it into action.
Dandy wound up his flowery pitch and the hunter plunged into his act. During much of it, his back would be turned toward the seven while he stood out in the open, completely exposed. Nevertheless, he was not unduly concerned about the possibility of getting a bullet in the back. That would be too swift, entirely out of keeping with the bandit chief
s sinister reputation. If, as he had guessed, this was to be an act of vengeance, his dying would be planned to take a very long time and be highly unpleasant.
He made only one very small change in his act. As its climax he used the rifle to cut the cords suspending the empty bottles, as always, and as always he smashed six of the falling bottles with a pistol shot before it struck the ground. This time, however, he shattered the seventh bottle with another rifle shot as it fell.
He laid the rifle on the stand beside the empty pistols and turned to bow acknowledgment to the storm of applause. Apachito and his six companions were on their feet and moving toward him, spreading out as they advanced, hands hovering over the butts of their guns. He ignored them, made his bow and turned as if to walk away.
"Hold it, fella," one of the outlaws called sharply. "Hold it right where you are. We got business to discuss with you."
The hunter turned back, his expression revealing only a mild, unworried curiosity. He brought out one of the stubby cigars and lit it with exaggerated care.
"Make it fast, boys. I've got some business of my own to attend to."
Apachito planted himself in front of the hunter as the others closed in from each side.
"Your business will keep," he snarled. "A long time." He looked the hunter up and down with hooded, inscrutable Indian eyes. "So you are the one they call
—Mister Nobody. I have heard many stories about your shooting, most of which I refused to believe. Now, after what we just saw, I believe them all."
, but can we get down to this business your friend, here, mentioned?"
"That we can. A few days ago,
, I sent five of my men to Los Ydros to attend to some important business for me. Instead, they chose to get very drunk and go to the circus first. There they got themselves killed by you. So the errand I sent them on was not done, and this made me very angry."
"Those bums," the bounty hunter said. "It serves you right for trusting anything important to such miserable dogs."
"I quite agree,
. They deserved what they got. If you had not saved me the trouble, I would probably have killed them myself."
"So?" the hunter said. "If you came here just to thank me, forget it. It was all in a day's work. Now, if you don't mind, I'll run along and tend to my affairs."
He made as if to turn away. The nearest outlaw slapped a hand to his gun and snarled, "Stay put, smart boy! Try walkin' away and I'll blow your balls off."
The hunter turned back, his face a mask of perplexity. "What's eating on you people, anyhow? You as much as said those no-goods gettin' themselves killed was good riddance. So I can't see what you've got to be acting sore about."
"Are you also
—Mister Stupid? I am the terrible Apachito. Everywhere men cringe and tremble at the very mention of my name. Now you have put my reputation on the line. What if word spreads that
can kill five of Apachito's men without paying the price? Soon they will jeer instead of fear the sound of my name. Every two-bit bounty hunter in the West will be swarming after us. No, my friend, you must pay the price—a price so high that fear will spread and never again will any man dare defy one of us."
"I hear you like your enemies to die slow," the hunter said. "What do you do, talk 'em to death?"
Apachito's dark face grew even darker with his rage. He squawled, "You are almost as good with your tongue as you are with guns,
, and with guns you are very good indeed. But how good are you when all the guns are empty, as those are now? You see, we sat there, counting your shots and awaiting this moment. Bring him along, men, and kill anyone who tries to interfere, even if he wears a badge,"
The outlaws made the fatal mistake of grabbing for the bounty hunter instead of for their guns. He twisted away. His hand flashed under the poncho and out with his own .44.
"You forgot to count these," the hunter said.
His left hand was a blurr of motion, slapping the hammer of the Colt. The six shots sounded almost as one drum-roll of thunder, coming so fast that not one of the six got his gun clear of leather before he died.
Apachito said softly, "Your bullets are counted now,
. Your gun is empty, but mine is not. I, too, am an expert in my way. I know many places to shoot you so you will not die for a very long time, but meanwhile you will suffer agonies you could never imagine. Even if I cannot wait to enjoy your screams, they will give me great satisfaction."
There was a sharp whistle, ending in
like a pistol shot as the lash of Molly Deever's bullwhip curled around Apachito's gun and jerked it out of his hand, almost taking his fingers with it.
"The next one," Molly said, "will take your front teeth."
Apachito's yell of anguish suddenly changed to a howl of pure terror. One of the twins had slipped out and opened the lion's cage. Elmer let go with a coughing roar, charged out and bounded happily to greet the bandit chief.
The outlaw howled again, spun around and raced wildly back toward his tethered horse, with Elmer racing merrily at his heels. The Man With No Name dived at the nearest dead body, flipped the inert hand aside and snatched out the half-drawn pistol. Still on his knees, he cocked the weapon and leveled it at a spot between the shoulder blades of the fleeing outlaw, the vision of fifteen thousands beautiful dollars dancing before his eyes. His finger tightened slowly and carefully on the trigger.
A single gunshot crashed from around the corner of the dressing tent a split second before his own shot. The slug tore the pistol out of his hand and sent it whirling. The bounty hunter hurled himself toward the next corpse and its loaded gun, using his left hand because his right was numbed by the impact.
Apachito had already torn loose the tethered reins and leaped to the saddle, spurring wildly away with Elmer, enjoying this fine new game, rocking in pursuit. Before the hunter got a second gun free, his quarry was well out of range and racing away, Elmer's pursuit lending the added speed of sheer terror to his horse's flight.
Shadrach came around the corner of the dressing tent, carrying the long-barreled pistol with its skeletal stock still attached. He was plucking out the spent shell casing and replacing it with a fresh cartridge.