Read A Coffin Full Of Dollars Online

Authors: Joe Millard

Tags: #Western

A Coffin Full Of Dollars (7 page)

Still on his knees, the bounty hunter lifted the cocked gun he had snatched from the holster of the second corpse.

"You son of a bitch! I had him cold in my sights—fifteen thousand lovely dollars' worth. If you're so gaddam determined to spoil my game, why in hell didn't
you
shoot him instead of me and grab it all? What kind of a crazy galoot are you, anyhow?"

"Why," Shadrach said, smiling, "I'm the crazy galoot who just saved you from making a mistake we'd both regret for the rest of our lives." He slapped the cylinder back into the frame, unscrewed the stock and slid the gun back into the holster slanting across his left hip. "It's time you and I went somewhere completely private and had a heart-to-heart talk."

"Any talk we have," the hunter said through his teeth, "will be out in plain sight—
after
I've checked my gun for possible damage and reloaded. I'm not forgetting you left word you intended to kill me on sight."

"You left the same message for me," Shadrach retorted, "and I'm sure you meant it, just as I did. However, when a situation changes, I'm not too inflexible to change with it. I always follow one basic rule. I never kill a man who can be useful and profitable to me, until he is worth more to me dead than alive."

CHAPTER 10

Dandy was bawling through his megaphone, trying to calm the crowd and work up some interest in his games. The hunter retrieved his gun, found it undamaged and reloaded.

"Wait here for me," he told Shadrach. "I'll be right back and we can walk out away from everybody. But I'll tell you right now, you'd better make a lot more sense than you have so far."

"Money always makes sense," Shadrach said, "and that's what I'm going to talk about."

The hunter walked over to where Molly and one of the girls stood in front of the dressing tent.

"You ladies saved my life, whatever that's worth. I'm obliged."

"It just puts us even," Molly said.

"I'm mighty sorry you lost your lion."

"Elmer? Don't worry about him. He
'
ll be back at feeding time. The poor old codger's been declawed and most of his teeth have fallen out. He couldn't kill a rabbit for himself if he was starving."

The hunter returned to Shadrach and together they dragged the bodies of the outlaws to a less conspicuous spot behind the wagons. Afterward they walked out away from the circus to a patch of woods. Shadrach indicated the trunk of a fallen tree.

"Sit down and get comfortable. This will take time." He fired up his yellow meerschaum pipe while the hunter lit one of his short cigars. "I gather you don't know much about Apachito beyond what was on the reward poster."

"That's right. Do you?"

"Quite a bit. I've spent a lot of time reading old newspaper accounts of his past crimes and they gave me a surprising amount of information. If you had killed him today, you would have earned fifteen thousand dollars—and lost at least a dozen times that amount, probably forever."

"Keep talking," The Man With No Name said. "Eventually some of it might just happen to make sense."

"You shot six of his men today, but according to latest reports he has at least fourteen more somewhere, probably at that secret hideaway the law could never find, and every one of them has a price on his head. Altogether they total well over forty thousand dollars. Without Apachito to hold them together, they could scatter to the four winds and a man could waste a lifetime tracking them down. Or they could just hole up where they are and wait for the hunt to cool down. Nine posses have failed to find the hideout. Your chances would be slim unless Apachito's alive so you could trail him there."

"He's alive now, so why aren't
you
trailing him? He's so scared of Elmer, he isn't apt to waste time looking over his shoulder to see if he's being followed."

"Because he can't go directly there. Even pushing, it's a two-day ride. He probably has a dozen hideouts along the way and they don't interest me."

"I don't see why not."

"Because, my innocent friend, there's a ten-thousand-dollar reward for locating their main hideout in the Misfortune Mountains, and not one penny for finding any others. So, not being a charity worker, I'll wait to trail him when he's within range of his main base. It's that simple."

"Why didn't
I
run across anything about ten thousand dollars for finding his hideout? If there
is
such a reward."

"Oh, there is, I assure you. It was posted many years ago, but I checked and it's never been withdrawn. They simply quit advertising it because no one ever tried to claim it. A few years ago, big ranchers were using Crazy Woman Pass as the shortest route for driving trail herds north to market. Then suddenly whole herds began vanishing somewhere in the pass. That was when Apachito's gang was just beginning to make the headlines, striking from a hideout somewhere near the pass. So the Stockmen's Association posted the reward, but when it produced no results, the ranchers simply switched to a longer but safer route, but they'd still prefer
the pass."

"You've got all the answers, so let's have this one. Where
do I fit in to all this?"

"You'll hear in a minute, my friend, but there's more. In fact, the best is yet to come. The gang's richest haul was a freight wagon load of gold bars, en route from the smelter to the Denver mint. They slaughtered the driver and a squad of troopers guarding the load and made off with the team and wagon."

"So?"

"So—this gold all came from the same mine and has a unique chemical content that makes it readily identifiable. But not one ounce has ever shown up on the market. Either Apachito shipped it abroad, which is highly unlikely, or it is still at their hideout, being held until he can find a safe way to dispose of it. I got in touch with the smelter and they'll gladly pay twenty percent of the current market value to get their gold back."

The hunter whistled softly. "You milk every tit on the cow, don't you? I
still
want to know where
I
fit in."

Shadrach smiled and said, "Cheese."

The Man With No Name stared at him. "What in hell are you smoking in that yellow engine—loco weed?"

"
You're
the cheese, my friend."

"For a few minutes there," the hunter said irritably, "you were almost making sense. And dammit, stop calling me your friend. Nobody who robs me, insults me and swears to kill me on sight is any friend of mine."

"That," Shadrach said coolly, "is one of the points on which you and I differ. Any man who is going to make me a lot of money is my friend, regardless of what he says, does or tries. At the moment, you're that man—
friend
. Together you and I are going to make a great deal of money very fast. Afterward ... who knows?"

"Do you get these spells frequently?"

Shadrach chuckled. "I'm afraid you're thinking with your emotions instead of your brains. I don't have that problem because I don't have emotions. In the days when you were tracking down wanted outlaws for me to snatch, I had ample opportunity to kill you but you were valuable to me. Then you began to get rambunctious and became a threat. I was prepared to eliminate you as a dangerous rival, until you suddenly made yourself valuable to me again by gunning down those five roughnecks at Los Ydros."

"In case you've forgotten," the hunter said, "I also collected bounties on two of them."

Shadrach dismissed the statement with a gesture. "Pennies! My sights are set on at least a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and you're going to help me get it,
friend
. Those five neatly placed slugs made you the cheese—the bait in the trap that's going to catch Apachito."

"I'm beginning to see daylight," the hunter said. "You figure he'll be back sooner or later for another try at getting even with me?"

"He
has
to, particularly after today. And it has to be sooner rather than later. Every day you go on living adds another layer of tarnish to his cherished reputation as the most terrible and bloodthirsty outlaw of them all. He could end up the laughingstock of the banditry business."

"Pardon me if I sound commercial, but what do I get out of playing the pigeon in your shooting gallery?"

"A generous share, friend. Let's say a full twenty-five percent of everything."

The hunter got to his feet.

"I must be getting along. I'd say it's been nice knowing you, Shadrach, but I hate a liar."

"Oh, come back and sit down, you hothead," Shadrach said. He heaved a deep sigh. "You're a bigger thief than Apachito, but I haven't any choice. An even split, then—fifty-fifty. And since we're equal partners, we
'
ll have to forget our differences for the time being and trust one another."

"Absolutely,
partner
. I'll trust you as far as I can throw a bull by the tail, and I'm sure you'll have just as much faith in me. By the way, if or when this character shows up again, how do I let you know? Send up smoke signals?"

"Don't worry. I'll be somewhere within gun range, keeping watch every minute. You haven't been out of my sight for a moment since the shoot-out at Los Ydros."

"Which reminds me," the hunter said, "I owe
you
ten dollars this time for putting a slug in Panhandle Egger while I was occupied with his pals."

Shadrach stared at him. "I didn't shoot Panhandle. In fact, I didn't fire a shot that day. You didn't appear to need help so I cleared out to lay plans."

"This once I'll believe you," The Man From Nowhere said. He scowled, rasping his finger through the stubble of beard on his jaw. "I don't like this.
You
didn't kill him and I certainly didn't. I only fired four shots, but all five of those gun-slicks got taken dead from lead poisoning. Yet nobody came forward to claim the bounty on Panhandle."

"I don't like it either," Shadrach said. "I can't see somebody in the crowd taking a hand just out of the goodness of his heart. I don't have that much faith in my fellow man. Do you suppose it could have been Dandy, or that big moose with the trumpet?"

The hunter shook his head firmly. "Dandy doesn't wear a gun. He doesn't like them and says he doesn't even own one. Except that dueling pistol he uses in the coffin act, of course, and a ball of that caliber would make a hole you could drive a buckboard through. I'm pretty sure Hunk doesn't own one, either."

"I don't like it," Shadrach repeated, shaking his head. "When I make plans, I want every element to fit in neatly. This doesn't fit anywhere, and it disturbs me. It could mean that a third person, someone we don't even know, is after Apachito and also using you as bait. If that's the case, we've got ourselves plenty of trouble."

"You've got
yourself
plenty of trouble," the hunter corrected. He climbed to his feet. "If that is the case, maybe I could make a better deal with him."

"Don't ever try it, fellow," Shadrach said softly. He got to his feet, his right hand inside the frock coat. "Don't ever play cute with me where there's money involved."

CHAPTER 11

The town of Hangville stood on a sandy, sun-baked flat, midway between two towering mountain ranges. Some five miles north stood the Horse Range. About equidistant to the south, the massive Malhoras—the Misfortunes—reared their jagged peaks in broken splendor.

Hangville owed its name in large part to a great spreading cottonwood tree that stood at the edge of town. Its lowest limb was long enough and sturdy, enough to support five dangling bodies at one time. In the days of Sheriff "Honest John" Leiter, that limb was frequently filled to capacity. Eventually, however, even the dullest witted of rustlers, road agents and general practitioners of the pistol profession got the message and began to give Hangville a wide berth. In time, local citizens even took to appearing in public without guns strapped to their thighs.

But Honest John forgot to look behind him one day, and the deputy who succeeded him inherited the office but not the nickname. He was badly afflicted with an itching palm and had too many close friends on the wrong side of the law. Word spread and the old crowd began drifting back to Hangville, but with the tacit understanding that they were not to prey on local merchants. The Hanging Tree became better known as a shady spot under which to picnic.

The tree stood close to the rim of what, in some prehistoric age, must have been a broad river. Now it was only a wide, shallow arroyo, or gully, with gently sloping sides and a thread of icy mountain stream meandering its chuckling way down the far side of the old riverbed. The banks of the stream were lined with thick stands of willows and an occasional cottonwood, but the remainder of the old riverbed was broad, level and open.

Dandy spotted this immediately as the ideal site for the circus, even though it meant leaving the wagons up above and lugging the equipment down to the riverbed by hand. The willows would make an ideal hiding place for Cora and her horse until the pistol shot signaled her to ride in as Laura. The hard-packed flat bottom was ideal for the equipment, and the sloping side formed a natural amphitheatre.

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