Authors: Joe Millard
By agreement, the bounty hunter took no part in the job of setting up or tearing down the show. His trained hands and lightning speed were much too valuable to be exposed to the risk of accident or muscle strain. While the troupe set about the long-familiar routine, he rode up to look over the town.
He was less interested in its architecture than in the faces of its denizens. If the rumors were right, he could expect more than one of them to bear invisible dollar signs. In spite of its sinister name, Hangville was reputed to be one of the safer sanctuaries for outlaws on the run—providing, of course, they had the money to pay for extra-legal favors or knew where to lay hands on some.
The town itself was a fairly typical collection of small adobes and drab, unpainted frame shacks, poorly disguised by high false fronts. There was the usual assortment of shops and stores, but these were augmented by more than the average number of saloons and hotels. The former were well patronized, even at this early hour, to judge by the number of horses crowding the hitchrails.
The sheriff's office was a small frame shanty crowded in between a gunsmith's shop and one marked
CABINET MAKER & UNDERTAKER
. The irony of the combination was not lost on the hunter.
He found hitching space a few steps from the sheriff's office and swung down. From what he had heard of Sheriff Ben Hipson his welcome would be anything but cordial, but to the bounty killer this was scarcely unique. Nor was he greatly disturbed. When he anticipated hostility he preferred to drag it out into the open early, rather than letting it fester unrecognized.
A half-dozen faded reward posters were tacked to the outside wall. The hunter was cynically amused to note that the newest of the six was more than a year old. Five of the outlaws pictured had long since stretched hemp or been planted in some local Boot Hill. The bounty killer himself had, in fact, collected the bounty on one of the five. Sheriff Hipson, it appeared, was taking no chances on offending his current friends.
Sheriff Hipson himself was a thickset, jowly man in urgent need of a shave. As the bounty hunter stepped through the door, the sheriff's small eyes went wide, then quickly narrowed to unrevealing slits. It was fairly obvious that the hunter's reputation and description had preceded him.
Ignoring the figure behind the littered desk, The Man With No Name strolled around the small room studying the reward notices that papered the walls. These, too, were either sadly antiquated or pictured outlaws whose field of operation was far away in some remote part of the country. He turned suddenly and caught a fierce scowl wrinkling the sheriff's low brow.
"These notices," he said, "they aren't exactly what you could call up-to-date. Where do you keep the current ones?"
The hunter's eyebrows climbed. "Don't
"Don't keep 'em. I burn 'em."
" The hunter put on an expression of bewilderment. "Now, why would you do that? I guess I'm a little slow, Sheriff. You'll have to spell it out for me."
The sheriff planted both big hands flat on the desk on each side and leaned forward as if he were about to spring over the cluttered top. His expression was openly hostile.
to do anything for your kind, mister," he growled, "but I will so you won't make any mistakes. It's clear enough what your trade is. We used to hang every new reward notice, but all it did was attract bounty killers like you, getting drunk, starting fights, killing people they didn't even know. So I quit posting the notices that attracted them. We don't want your kind in Hangville, so move on. We've got a nice, quiet, peaceful town and I intend—"
He was interrupted by an outburst of loud, furious voices from a saloon directly across the street. The batwing doors burst open and a crowd of men poured out, diving frantically to the right or the left, out of line with the open door. A moment later two gunshots crashed out, almost as one, from inside the saloon.
"Congratulations, Sheriff," the bounty hunter said dryly, "on your nice, quiet, peaceful town."
The sheriff cursed him in a choked voice and charged out the door and across the street with the hunter at his heels. The saloon looked as if a tornado had gone through it. In the panicky haste to flee from stray bullets, customers had upset tables, chairs and glasses with wild abandon. The bar was covered with upset glass and puddles of spilled liquor. An uncorked whiskey bottle lay on its side, burping its contents into the litter.
Only two men were visible and one of them was no longer a customer. He was sprawled in the sawdust face-down, his gun a few inches from a dead hand. The other man stood a few feet from him. He looked up from reloading his gun as the two burst in.
From somewhere below the bar a quavery voice called, "Is it safe yet?"
"Sure, Allie," the gunman called back. "You can all get up now. It's over."
"What happened here, Curley?" the sheriff demanded,
"He drawed on
, Sheriff. The stupid sonofabitch drawed on me. He was gettin' drunk an' quarrelsome an' when I tried to shush him, the damn fool grabbed for his iron."
"That the way it was?" the sheriff demanded of a moonfaced man in a bartender's apron behind the bar.
"Exactly the way, Sheriff," the moon-faced man said, bobbing his head.
The others who had taken refuge behind the bar all nodded confirmation and their nervous glances slid toward the killer. It seemed to the bounty hunter that they all seemed a bit too quick, too vehement and too nervous for credibility.
"All right, Curley," the sheriff said, shrugging. "You're in the clear. I'll send Oscar over to pick him up." He turned to the sea of faces beyond the batwings. "It's all right, boys. You can come back in and get to your drinking."
He pushed through the crowd, the bounty hunter at his heels. In the middle of the street he stopped so abruptly that the other almost bumped into him. He whirled, his face dark with anger, and snarled, "What the hell are you crowding my back for? I told you to move on and I meant it. If it's trouble you're looking for, try hanging around and you'll get it."
"Whatever you say, Sheriff. But it's kind of too bad you don't read those reward notices before you burn them. If you did you'd know your friend Curley Bick, in there, makes a habit of shooting people for any reason or none. In fact, he's worth three thousand dollars, dead or alive." He turned away with a casual half-salute. "Thanks for the cooperation."
The sheriff glared at the poncho-covered back, his small eyes glittering. His hand moved to the butt of his gun, then reluctantly dropped away. He turned abruptly and stamped into his office.
The bounty hunter strolled on along the street in the direction opposite to where he had left his horse. Ahead was a squat, square adobe building with small, barred windows. It resembled a prison but a sign identified it as the
FIRST BANK OF HANGVILLE.
Clearly the bank had prospered, since it was in the process of being enlarged by the addition of a wing. An opening had been cut through the side wall, then boarded over with heavy oak planking. Outside this, workmen were in the process of erecting the frame of the new wing. Beyond stood huge piles of sun-baked adobe bricks.
Two heavily armed guards were posted in front of the boarded-up opening. In addition to their pistols, one carried a rifle cradled across his left arm, the other a shotgun. Both weapons lifted sharply as the bounty hunter cut across from the opposite side of the street for a closer look. He stopped, looking up at carpenters on a scaffold.
The guard with the shotgun growled, "You, there, fella. Move along down the street. We got strict orders not to let nobody loiter here."
The hunter made no move to obey but continued to stand with his head tipped back, watching the workmen above. In his own good time he turned his face toward the guards.
"I want to see how they hoist that heavy roof timber into place. Is there some kind of law in this town against watching workmen do a tricky job?"
"There is for
job, wise guy. This here is bank property and the bank makes its own laws. Until this hole gets all closed up proper and permanent, that's exactly how it's goin' to be. So just pick up them feet and mosey to hell along without no more argument. Savvy?"
His companion snarled, "That don't mean next week. We was told to get as tough as necessary with anybody that looks suspicious, and mister, you sure as hell fit that description all the way."
Behind the hunter there was a pound of heavy boots on the plank sidewalk and both his wrists were seized in vise-like clutches. The man holding his right wrist was Sheriff Ben Hipson. The one on his left was even more massively built and had a deputy's badge pinned to his shirt.
"This buzzard giving you boys trouble, Hack?" the sheriff demanded.
"He's been givin' us a lot of lip, Sheriff, and he refused to move along when we told him to."
"Not moving on when he's told to seems to be kind of a habit with him, but he'll move now." He glared at The Man With No Name but there was a glint of satisfaction in the pig eyes. "I gave you your chance, but you weren't bright enough to take it. So you're under arrest, Mister Whoever-You-Are."
"On what charge, Sheriff?"
"Not 'charge,' fellow—'
' Refusal to obey an officer of the law, for a starter. Loitering, trespass, suspicious actions around a bank and making slanderous remarks about a citizen of the community, namely one Curley Bick. Oh, yes—when I grabbed your wrist you tried to pull loose. That's resisting arrest. If that ain't enough, I'll think up a few more on the way to jail. I'm locking you up for trial at the next session of court."
"When will that be?" the hunter asked.
The sheriff grinned. "I'd say the circuit judge ought to get around this way sometime in the next couple months."
The hunter was jerked around and hauled roughly back up the street, both wrists still imprisoned in the grip of the two. They were strong men but he was certain he could break their holds and wrench his hands free. However, that was almost sure to lead to gunplay, and not only was there no bounties on sheriffs and deputies, but killing them could bring unpleasant reactions.
The jail consisted of two dreary cells behind the sheriff's office. Both were unoccupied. As the sheriff swung one of the barred doors open, the deputy spoke for the first time.
"Hell, Ben! You forgot to take his gun."
"I didn't forget, Max, but what good'll it do him unless he can draw and shoot with his teeth? Drag him inside and I'll get it just before we let go of his wrists."
They started to haul the bounty hunter into the open cell but the doorway was not wide enough for the three abreast. To keep their holds, either the sheriff or the deputy had to go through first. Both started simultaneously to take the lead and the hunter made his play.
His powerful muscles swelled as he threw himself backward. At the same time he put all his strength into bringing his arms forward and around. His captors, caught off balance, were pulled together, their heads meeting with a hollow
Neither was knocked out by the impact but they were both stunned.
The hunter tore his wrists loose and gave the two a shove that sent them reeling into the cell, to slam into the wall and sprawl in a heap on the floor. Before they could untangle, he slammed the cell door, turned the huge iron key standing in the lock and snatched it out. He was out the jail door a split second before the two got their guns out and two slugs crashed into door as he slammed it.
The two were bawling curses and threats, but the heavy door muffled the sound so that little could be heard outside. The bounty hunter dropped the cell key into the narrow space between the iron safe and the wall. The front door key was in the lock. He went out, locked the office door and dropped the key through a crack in the boardwalk. He strolled leisurely to his horse, mounted and rode unhurriedly off.
At the edge of town a big man in a frock coat was sitting on a black horse beside the road. He was holding a pistol with an immensely long barrel and a skeletal rifle stock screwed to the butt. The Y-shaped scar on his cheek was livid with fury.
"You locoed idiot! You goddam all-time prize fool! With a fortune riding on you, what in God's name ever possessed you to stick your stupid head in where half the population would be overjoyed to blow it off? Do you know that when you turned your back on that sheriff, he reached for his gun? I had a bead on him and I'd have shot first if he tried to draw it. Then hanging around to let yourself get picked up by him and that deputy—that was the dumbest stunt of all."
His voice was thick and shaking with the intensity of his rage. The hunter studied him coldly.
"There was nothing in our agreement that said I had to have your permission to go where I please, when I please. I've managed to survive pretty well so far without you wet-nursing me." He reined his horse around and started off.
"Damn you!" Shadrach yelled. "Where the hell do you think you're going now?"
"Why," the hunter said, "back to the circus, of course. Dandy will be having fits, wondering where I am, and I want to clean and oil all my guns before today's performance."