Authors: Van Holt
But the worm of jealousy and envy had gnawed its way into Curly’s thoughts, and he didn’t believe Ringo’s silent message. He didn’t want to believe it.
Cash was still standing there, looking at his dead dogs, and the anger and bitterness was coming back into his face, turning it black with hatred, where it had been so pale and numb looking a moment before.
“Get off the street,” Curly said.
Without a word Cash turned and came by him and entered the saloon. Curly looked down toward the livery stable and then followed Cash inside.
A few minutes later Ringo rode by the saloon looking straight ahead and left town heading east along the stage road. There was no indication on his hard face as to what he was thinking. Killers, Curly thought, watching at the saloon window, didn’t show their feelings like everyone else. At almost any murder trial you could see evidence of that, when the man on trial for his life often seemed calmer and more composed than anyone else in the courtroom.
Curly might have been surprised if he had seen the cold fury contorting Ringo’s face when he halted outside of town to reload his gun.
And Curly might have been even more surprised if he had seen Ringo when he met Wyatt Earp out in the boulder-strewn hills.
They got down off their horses and faced each other like enemies instead of men who were at least temporarily on the same side. It was about all Ringo could manage to keep his temper under control. And the other man was not in a much better mood himself. He had got soaked that morning, in the dripping willows. And living in the hills like a wild animal will do things to a man.
He was the one who spoke first. “Your friend Curly was at that wash only a few minutes after you left.”
“He told me,” Ringo said, his blue eyes like ice. “It seems he heard you cock a gun over in the willows, and he got out of there. What did you have in mind, Wyatt?”
“I had to scare him away somehow,” Wyatt said. “What did you want me to do, let him come on in there and see it was me? Hell, the shock would have killed him if I hadn’t.”
Ringo’s jaw set in anger. “Curly thinks it was me cocked that gun. He’s sore as hell about it.”
“Curly will get over being sore,” Wyatt said. “He might not get over the next load of buckshot I put in him so quick. But I’m pretty sore myself about seeing him there, trying to stick his nose in. You better tell him to keep the hell away from me, if he knows what’s good for him.”
“Now just how am I going to do that?” Ringo asked sarcastically. “You made me promise not to tell him you’re even in these parts.”
“No, don’t tell Curly, whatever you do,” Wyatt said. “He’d tell everyone he sees and some more besides.”
“Even Curly can’t do that,” Ringo said. “If you hadn’t cocked that gun—what were you hanging around there for, anyway?”
Wyatt twisted one side of his hard mouth and rubbed the back of his left thumb across the corner of his tawny mustache. “I thought Pike or some of the others might show up to see what the shooting was about.”
“It looks like you mean to get them all,” Ringo said. “You always were a little selfish, Wyatt.”
“Then get busy and help me,” Wyatt retorted. “I can’t spend much more time here. When I left Gunnison I said I was only going prospecting. If I’m not back soon, people will begin to wonder, and maybe even start looking for me.”
“Wyatt, it wasn’t necessary for you to come all the way down here from Colorado,” Ringo said. “Those boys would have been taken care of in due time. And it’s plain I’m going to get the credit for them anyway.”
“What harm can that do?” Wyatt asked. “You’ve got a perfect alibi. They can’t hang a dead man.”
“Somebody’s liable to try,” Ringo said.
“You scared, Ringo?” Wyatt asked, half smiling. “Is that why you still ain’t got any of those boys who bushwhacked you?”
Anger flared in Ringo’s eyes and surged across his jaw. He whipped out his gun and fired a bullet past Wyatt’s left ear, then cocked the gun again to keep Wyatt from pulling the Buntline Special the rest of the way out of the holster. Wyatt’s own jaw knotted with anger and there was a look of pure murder in his frosty blue eyes.
Then Wyatt heard a groan behind him. He turned his head and saw Sticky-fingered Dave raise up out of the brush on his toes, holding his chest with his left hand and his gun in his right, and fall forward on his stiff contorted face.
“In case you saved my life this morning,” Ringo was saying, “I reckon that makes us even. And I’m mighty glad of it. I’d sure hate to owe a lawman anything. Even a washed-up ex-lawman like you.”
“I think you’d hate to owe anyone anything,” Wyatt said.
“Could be,” Ringo said, replacing the spent cartridge in his gun.
Wyatt glanced at the gleaming blue-steel Colt. His own gun hadn’t even been clear of the holster when Ringo fired, and yet he had been alert and ready, half expecting Ringo to make a fight.
“I reckon you’ve answered a question that’s been in my mind a long time,” Wyatt said. ‘’I always wondered which one of us was the fastest.”
“There was never any question in my mind,” Ringo said.
He slipped the gun back into his holster and looked past Wyatt at the still body of Sticky-fingered Dave. The thoughtful look on his face made Wyatt pay close attention to what he said next, “Something just occurred to me. Sticky-fingered Dave didn’t just happen along by accident. He must have come hunting us, and he wouldn’t have come without Pike and Bear.”
“All three of them wouldn’t have come after us without some help,” Wyatt said.
“Where would they get any help?” Ringo asked. “Even their own kind can’t stand them.”
“I was going to tell you earlier—”
“Tell me later,” Ringo said, and dived behind a nearby rock. Wyatt hit the ground beside him, the Buntline Special already in his hand, just as a bullet cut dust and fragments from the rock and whistled away.
Ringo pulled his second gun from under his coat and checked it, while Wyatt watched with interest. Ringo held the gun in his left hand for a moment, then tucked it back in his waistband with the butt to the right.
“What were you going to tell me earlier?” he asked.
“Some Apaches have been sneaking around the last few days,” Wyatt said. “About five by my count.”
“I know,” Ringo said. “Curly stole a horse from them, and they’re trying to get it back.”
Wyatt’s face slowly turned red as he glared at Ringo through his cold unwinking eyes. “Say that again.”
Ringo glanced curiously at him. “What’s it got to do with us?”
“What’s it got to do with us, hell,” Wyatt said. “We’re going to have to fight Apaches because of that bastard. This morning I saw them five bucks having a powwow with the Lefferts boys. Pike was passing a jug around, and he wouldn’t have done that unless he expected to get something in return.”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
“I was going to,” Wyatt grated. “But you started giving me hell about Curly and it sort of slipped my mind. And from what you say, they wouldn’t even be fooling around here if that bastard hadn’t stole a horse from them.”
Ringo’s eyes were thoughtful. “That means we could be up against seven guns, if the Apaches are with them. Not very good odds.”
“Pike wouldn’t have it any other way,” Wyatt grunted. “But it’s that bastard Curly’s fault. I sure don’t like the idea of having to fight Apaches because of him, and I might even end up saving his life in the long run.”
Ringo gave him a mild glance. “Try to think of it as saving your own life.”
Then he began crawling away through the rocks and brush. “Where you going?” Wyatt asked.
“My horse,” Ringo said. “If the Apaches get him, I’ll never see him again.”
“We don’t even know for sure that the Apaches are with them,” Wyatt said.
Ringo suddenly raised his gun and fired, and on the steep slope a good fifty yards away an Indian tumbled down through the brush.
“We know now,” Ringo said.
Even as he spoke, three more Apaches appeared, much closer than the first. They seemed to rise up out of the ground itself, shooting quickly and badly, then dropping from sight again.
“Never mind the horses,” Wyatt said. “The bastards are after us, not our animals. But I wouldn’t mind having my shotgun out of that saddle boot, right about now.”
He whipped up his Buntline Special and fired at a movement in the brush, and an Indian screamed and then was silent.
Wyatt’s face twisted with a red rage and he chewed the corner of his mustache. “I never thought I’d mind killing Apaches,” he said. “But if them bucks were after Curly—the one I just killed might have lifted his hair sometime. And the others may lift mine, because of him.”
Ringo glanced around, half smiling. Then he said quietly, “Wyatt.”
“I saw Bear Lefferts duck behind a rock up there on the hill behind you,” Ringo said. “He’s too far for my guns, but you might get him with that Buntline Special.”
The Buntline Special had a barrel almost as long as a carbine, giving it more range than an ordinary Colt. Wyatt faced around the other way and scanned the rugged slope. “Where?”
“That long rock, beside the one that’s leaning,” Ringo said, watching in the other direction.
“I see it,” Wyatt said. He cocked his gun, took aim and waited. A moment later Bear Lefferts’s bearded face rose up into his sights, and Wyatt squeezed the trigger.
Bear’s mouth gaped open in surprise, and then he fell back out of sight.
“Get him?” Ringo asked, still watching for the Apaches who had dropped to the ground not far away.
“Uh-huh,” Wyatt said, replacing the spent cartridges in his gun.
The three Apaches suddenly rose up and came shooting and screaming through the rocks, reeling crazily from the firewater Pike had given them and their own efforts to dodge enemy lead. They all had long wild black hair, hideously painted savage faces, and wore only a few scraps of clothing on their lean brown bodies.
Ringo fired, rolled over and fired again. Two of the Apaches grunted in mid stride and fell dead. But the third one came on, keeping a rock between himself and Ringo.
Wyatt spun the cylinder of his gun, threw the gun up and fired. His bullet tore a bloody hole in the Apache’s chest, but the Apache’s momentum carried him on. He hit the side of the rock, turned over in the air, walloped the ground on his back and lay still, not more than five feet from Ringo.
At that moment Pike Lefferts began firing at them from the rocks near the top of the hill. The bullets whistled all around them and showered them with stinging rock fragments. Pike fired rapidly until his rifle was empty. Then they saw him disappear over the crest of the hill, throwing a wild look over his shoulder, his bearded face contorted with fear and hatred. A moment later hoofbeats drummed away.
Ringo got to his feet and stood looking curiously down at the dead Indian with the huge nose. A moment later Wyatt joined him and said, “I reckon that would be Big Nose. Now I remember hearing about him. He’s the one who vowed never to quit till he got Curly’s hair.” Wyatt ground his teeth and almost wept. “And I killed him! I just wish it was Curly lying there.”
Ringo glanced at him. “You really hate him, don’t you?”
“To put it mildly,” Wyatt grunted.
Ringo reloaded his gun. “Let’s go after Pike. If he gets away he’ll hide in the brush and watch for a chance to bushwhack us.”
They got on their dark horses and took out after Pike at a gallop. His tracks led directly to the stage road and then west along it toward Boot Hill.
Wyatt and Ringo halted at the top of a rocky hill and studied the open stretch ahead. They could no longer hear the hoofbeats of Pike’s horse. The sun had come out from behind a cloud and Ringo’s blue eyes were narrowed thoughtfully against the light. Beyond the open stretch there was another hill crowned with boulders. The open stretch itself was dotted with rocks and brush, but there was no cover sufficient to hide a man on a horse, nor even on foot if he moved around much. And it would take a long time to circle around.
“Pike’s waiting up there in those rocks,” Ringo said. “I’d bet money on that. And I don’t think we can approach from either side without him seeing us.”
“You got any suggestions?” Wyatt asked.
“Let’s think about it,” Ringo said. “Pike’s not going anywhere. It would take him a long time to find another spot so ideal for his purpose.”
They rode behind a rock outcrop that stuck up like a giant hand with some of the fingers broken off. There were boulders all around and they could just see the stage road back the way they had come. Ringo glimpsed a rider who appeared from time to time through a gap in the rocks, bobbing a little closer. Ringo sat his saddle and watched the approaching horseman with a growing interest, and finally a very cold smile appeared on his face.
“I’ll be damned,” he said softly.
Wyatt had dismounted and sat down on a rock about twenty feet away with his hat pushed back on his blond head, chewing a piece of jerky. “Someone coming?”
“The one and only Hoodoo Lefferts,” Ringo said.
“I heard he was bad luck.”
“He is,” Ringo said. “Bad luck for someone.”
“You got an idea?” Wyatt asked.
“I’m getting one.”
Ringo dismounted and sat down near the road with his back against the rock outcrop, pulling his hat down over his eyes.
Wyatt gazed at him in wonder. “He’ll see your horse, won’t he?”
“Hoodoo’s a trusting soul,” Ringo said. “That’s one reason he’s so unlucky. He thinks everyone’s his friend. Except me, maybe. And he thinks I’m dead.”
“Was he there when Pike and them bushwhacked you?” Wyatt asked.
“He was there,” Ringo said. “Grinning like a kid who’d just discovered a new game. I don’t think he actually meant me any harm, though. He was just trying to have a good time. Some people really don’t seem to think bullets hurt.” Below the pulled-down hat Ringo’s face got harder, and he added as an afterthought, “Not till it comes their turn to be the target, anyway.”
“Well, I sure hope you know what you’re doing,” Wyatt said.
“Hell, I’ve still got eight lives left,” Ringo said carelessly.
“I haven’t,” Wyatt said. “I’ve already used up most of mine.”
Ringo laughed quietly. Somehow it was not a very pleasant sound, nor hardly to be expected, in view of the circumstances and coming from a man who almost never even smiled. But he didn’t say anything, and Wyatt had no idea what he was thinking—then or at any other time. That would bother Wyatt a lot in the years to come—the knowledge that he had never known what Ringo was thinking. Or what Ringo thought of him, the great Wyatt Earp.
The sun blazed intermittently through dark drifting clouds whose shadows drifted across the desert. Before the rain it had been hot and dry. Now it was cold and damp, and a raw wind tore through the stunted gray brush on the hill and tugged at the brim of Ringo’s black hat.
He sat there against the rock with the hat over his eyes and seemed half asleep while Hoodoo Lefferts rode slowly up the long, winding stage road. Ringo’s gun was in his holster, and Wyatt, following his example, left the Buntline Special in the leather, though he was uneasy and kept glancing at Ringo. Several times he started to tell Ringo not to go to sleep, but he decided that wasn’t necessary. Ringo couldn’t possibly be as careless as he appeared, for he was no greenhorn.
Hoodoo Lefferts came on up the hill as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He was several years younger than Pike and Bear and didn’t look much like either of them. Under an old slouch hat was a head of dirty brown hair and a rather large heavy face, with most of the weight seemingly toward the bottom. It was an ugly face, yet pleasant, for Hoodoo seemed always to be smiling or close to it. He had blundered happily through many misadventures, getting a number of people killed and receiving numerous injuries himself. But nothing seemed to keep him down for long. Soon he was in the midst of more calamities, and took them in stride, taking it for granted that bad luck was the normal condition of life.
His brothers and friends were not so philosophical about it. They blamed Hoodoo, and whenever possible sent him off on useless errands. This last time Pike had run him off and told him to stay gone, but after six months Hoodoo figured it was safe to come back. He felt sure Pike and the others would be happy to see him.
Hoodoo was almost to the top of the hill before he noticed the black horse standing by the road and the man sitting against the rock with his hat pulled down over his eyes, hiding most of his face. Hoodoo didn’t even see the blond fellow sitting on the rock off to his right.