Authors: Van Holt
“I was hoping you’d let me handle it my own way—and alone,” Wyatt said. “I don’t need any help either. This is the sort of thing I’m good at.”
Ringo glanced at the Buntline Special buckled about Wyatt’s lean waist, at the walnut stock of the sawed-off shotgun in the saddle scabbard. “Afraid you’ll have to give that scattergun a rest, Wyatt. Those boys are wearing my brand.”
Wyatt shook his head. “I didn’t come all the way down here just for the ride, Ringo.” He thought for a moment. “Tell you what. If you’ll leave those boys alone, I’ll leave Curly alone.”
“No trade,” Ringo said. “Curly can take care of himself.”
“Curly doesn’t stand a chance against me and you know it.”
“He’s better than you think.”
“I found out how good Curly was at that waterhole,” Wyatt said.
Ringo thought for a time and then sighed. “You’ve got to give me more than Curly. I want Pike and Bear Lefferts. You can have the others.”
“No,” Wyatt grunted. “I want the Lefferts boys and Mad Dog Shorty.”
“You can have Mad Dog Shorty and the others,” Ringo said, “but I want Pike and Bear.”
Wyatt shook his head, his jaw as stubborn as Ringo’s.
“You can’t have everything you want, Ringo. I can’t give you them and Curly too.”
“All right,” Ringo growled. “You can have Mad Dog Shorty, we’ll cut cards for Pike, and it’s open season on the others.”
“It’s a deal!”
So they got down off their horses, Ringo produced a deck from his saddlebag, and they cut cards to see which one of them should have the pleasure of killing Pike Lefferts.
A little after dark the Hatcher boys rode their horses up and down the street and fired their guns at the sky. There was a time when Curly would have joined them, but now he was content to stand on the boardwalk and watch. Getting old, he thought. Thirty already.
He saw Ringo doing the same in the shadows near the hotel. Even in the dark you could tell he was a tall, fine looking man in his black suit and hat. But he was getting old, too. Just how old he had never said, but at least thirty. Over the hill, like Curly.
Ringo was holding a thin cigar in his motionless left hand and he had his head turned a little to one side, watching the youngest Hatcher. Comanche Joe had ridden his horse onto the boardwalk and was getting a little careless about where he pointed his gun. The muzzle had descended in Ringo’s general direction and Curly was afraid the wild boy might drop a slug near Ringo just to see what would happen.
“Comanche!” he called. “Be careful with that thing!”
Without a word the boy pulled his horse off the boardwalk and galloped down the street toward the livery stable, firing a couple of shots into the air.
Cash and Beanbelly turned in before the Road to Ruin and went inside.
Curly strolled toward the hotel, lighting a cigar. As he approached he watched Ringo from under the wide brim of his hat, smiling uncertainly. After their talk out in the desert he wasn’t sure Ringo would be too happy to see him.
They both nodded. Curly said “Ringo” in a quiet tone and Ringo said “Curly” just as quietly.
Then for a few minutes they smoked in silence, looking along the empty street. Cash and Beanbelly were in the Road to Ruin and Comanche Joe had disappeared somewhere.
“Not like the old days,” Curly said.
Ringo looked at him and echoed his words of that morning, “A lively little town we’ve got here.”
“It ain’t no Tombstone or Galeyville,” Curly admitted. “But they ain’t what they used to be. Tombstone is quiet now and Galeyville ain’t much more than a ghost town.”
“It can’t be much deader than this place.”
“Main thing there just ain’t many people here.”
“Well, I’m not crazy about people anyway,’’ Ringo said.
“That’s where the women are,” Curly said, grinning. “By the way, Ringo, what ever happened with that lady who used to write you all them letters?”
Ringo turned like he was going to hit him. “Don’t push your luck!” he said and strode off down the street, puffing his cigar.
Curly was about to call after him, but just then old Don Juan came out of the hotel, flashing his teeth in a smile.
He was a tall powerful old Mexican and the dim light was kind to his swarthy, rugged features. He was wearing baggy white clothes and a big straw sombrero. He bent his head when he saw Curly.
“Ah, Senor Curly.”
“Guilty as charged. You finished work already, Don Juan?”
“Si. Go home now.”
“Don’t you do nothing I wouldn’t, Don Juan,” Curly said, handing him a cigar.
“Gracias, Senor Curly!” the old Mexican said, biting off the end of the cigar as he went down the street.
As he was going by the Road to Ruin, Curly saw him take off his big hat and bow politely to one of the girls, who stood at the door smoking a cigarette. It was Big Ella and she said, “You go straight home now, Don Juan.”
Don Juan laughed and quickened his pace a little. He was afraid the gringos of the town wouldn’t like it if he showed any interest in the girls. There had already been some talk of running him out of town because he seemed too friendly with Miss Sarah. Curly didn’t know whether the old Mexican had heard the talk or not, but when he wasn’t at work in the hotel he stayed inside the abandoned adobe hut he had moved into on the edge of town.
Curly heard a horse trotting along the street and turned his head. It was Ringo coming from the stable on his black. He kept to the middle of the dusty street, riding right past.
“Where you going?” Curly asked.
“I’ll see you later,” Ringo said and rode on out of town.
“Watch out for them Apaches,” Curly muttered. “And Pike and them.” But he was talking to himself. Ringo was gone.
Curly threw his cigar away and angled across the street to the Road to Ruin. It was a pretty dead place before Pike Lefferts and his bunch showed up. Big Ella and Crazy Mary sat at a table with Cash and Beanbelly, drinking beer and eating beans and tortillas. Blondie Burkett, the lady who owned and ran the place, was behind the bar, polishing the glass and mahogany. She laid her rag aside and regarded Curly with her candid level gaze. She was an attractive lady in her late thirties, with fantastic curves.
Curly lit another cigar and motioned for the usual. Blondie poured it and then said in the blunt voice for which she was so well known, “What’s with you, Curly?”
He looked at her uneasily. She had a mole on her left cheek and a little down on her upper lip, but she was right handsome woman all the same. He had thought she was beautiful before he saw Miss Sarah. “How’s that, Blondie?” he asked.
“You ain’t been the same lately,” she said, “You hardly ever come in here and then you stand there like your mind was somewhere else. It’s Miss Sarah, ain’t it?”
“What makes you think that, Blondie?”
“Don’t you play the innocent with me, Curly. You’ve been acting like you didn’t know what women were for, ever since she came to this town. In here you do, anyway.”
“I reckon I’m getting too old for that sort of thing, Blondie.”
“Too old, hell. I’ve got a good five years on you and it ain’t slowed me down none. And you sure weren’t too old before she came to town.”
“Business has been slow lately,” Curly said. “Them cows are getting harder to find all the time, and they’re so skinny we can’t get anything for them.”
“You know your credit’s good here,” Blondie said.
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
She snorted. “That’s what you said the last time. I bet if Miss Sarah made the same offer you wouldn’t have to think about it. But she wouldn’t look at you if you went in there without anything on but your guns and spurs. You’re making a damn fool of yourself, Curly.”
“I know it.”
He heard Beanbelly snicker and he glanced around at him and Cash and the two girls. Big Ella was still putting away the chuck, even after Beanbelly had quit eating, and she looked as happy as a cow in clover. Crazy Mary had been drinking a lot and as usual she looked mighty sad about something. She was a thin girl who never showed her teeth in a smile. She hardly ever said anything, but every once in a while she pitched a real fit, screaming and cussing and threatening to kill someone. Once she had almost stabbed Beanbelly with a fork when she thought he had laughed at her. Also, she resented his preference for Big Ella, even though she preferred Cash herself.
“I should get Miss Sarah to work for me,” Blondie said. “Then you’d be in here half of the time. I’m surprised you didn’t move back into the hotel when she came to town.”
“I thought about it.”
“You might as well go on back over to the Bent Elbow, if a drink is all you want,” Blondie said. “When people come here it’s for something they can’t get over there.”
“I thought they came here for a little polite conversation,” Curly said, watching her with his bright gray eyes.
“Big Ella!” Blondie roared. “Throw him out!”
“Wait till I’m through eating,” Big Ella said.
“That’s all she wants to do,” Blondie said. “Feed her fat face. And Crazy Mary—one look at her sour face is enough for most men.”
Crazy Mary looked even sulkier and Big Ella’s plump round face got red with resentment. “Don’t you set in on us, Blondie,” Big Ella said.
“If you two don’t start earning your keep, I’m going to kick you both out,” Blondie said.
“Maybe I’ll start a place of my own,” Big Ella said. “I’ve been thinking about going up to Wyoming or Montana where it ain’t so hot.”
“You do that,” Blondie told her. “I’ll pay your stage fare as far as Lordsburg.”
“Don’t tempt me,” Big Ella said, wiping her plate clean with a bit of tortilla.
“Look at her,” Blondie said. “Big as a bear and twice as ugly. But she keeps right on feeding her face, like a hog at the trough.”
“Beanbelly thinks I’m pretty,” Big Ella said. “Don’t you, Beanbelly? You better say yes, if you know what’s good for you.”
“Beanbelly would get all moon-eyed over a hump-backed buffalo,” Blondie said.
“I might if it was cooked,” Beanbelly said.
“Anybody seen my bronc buster?” Curly asked.
Blondie glanced at him. “You mean Comanche Joe? He hardly ever comes in here. He may be good with horses but he’s mighty shy around women.”
Just then the Lefferts gang galloped into town, yelling and firing their guns, making a lot of noise to hide their fear.
“Sounds like it’s gonna get lively,” Blondie said, and checked the double barrel shotgun she kept under the bar. “Big Ella, if they start a roughhouse, you lay Bear out the first thing with one of them ax handles. We can handle the others.”
“They must know Ringo rode out of town,” Curly said, shifting the cigar to his left hand.
“I ain’t having nothin’ to do with that Sticky-fingered Dave,” Crazy Mary said. “He wants me to undress in front of the mirror while he sits in the corner and watches me.”
“So long as he pays for the privilege,” Blondie said.
“Yeah, but he tries to steal the money back before he leaves,” Crazy Mary said.
“That’s going too far,” Blondie said.
Suddenly the street was silent. Then the Lefferts gang swarmed in through the batwings, bringing their violent noise with them. Wall-eyed Pike was in the lead, his wild eyes as black as his heart. He led the way to the bar and grabbed the bottle Blondie put before him, turning it up. As fast as she could set out the bottles and glasses the others grabbed them and drank like men who had stumbled on a waterhole in the middle of a parched desert.
Curly counted heads and found one missing.
“Where’s Bear?” he asked.
Pike wiped his mouth with a dirty hand and turned a dark gaze on him. “He’s around. That bastard Ringo tries to sneak up on us, he’ll get a gutful of lead.”
“I figger you know he ain’t around,” Curly said, “or you wouldn’t be here. You rode back in when you knew he was out of town, trying to make people think you ain’t scared.”
“Who’s scared?” Pike asked.
“I ain’t scared of you, Curly.”
“You must be. You keep passing up chances to prove it.”
Pike’s eyes danced with wild anger. He laughed explosively, as if it was the funniest thing he had ever heard of. Then he suddenly left the bar and crossed the floor, taking Big Ella’s arm and pulling her out of her chair. “Come on, Big Ella! We got things to discuss in private!”
Big Ella looked at Beanbelly, gave a little shrug, and let Pike lead her into one of the back rooms.
Sticky-fingered Dave finished his drink and started toward Crazy Mary.
Blondie brought up the shotgun and tapped the twin barrels on the bar. “You didn’t pay for your drink,” she said. “And if you’ve got something in mind with Crazy Mary you’ll pay me in advance.”
Sticky-fingered Dave shrugged, grinning, and carelessly laid some money on the bar. Then he went to the table where Crazy Mary sat with Cash and Beanbelly and he reached for her hand. Crazy Mary held back for just a moment, and there was a look of misery on her face. Then she got up and left the table with Sticky-fingered Dave. Cash’s face got red but he didn’t say anything. There wasn’t much he could say. Crazy Mary was a working girl.
“Hey, Blondie,” Scar-face Harry said, “where at’s the chuck?”
“Big Ella ate it all,” Blondie said.
Scar-face leaned his head toward Rattlesnake Sam and asked, “What did she say?”
“She said Big Ella ate it all,” Rattlesnake said.
“Son of a bitch,” Scar-face said.
Mad Dog Shorty stood at the bar in his baggy old suit and derby, with a whiskey glass in his hand and the stub of a cigar between his little teeth. He saw Curly watching him in the back-bar mirror and his watery eyes glimmered with hate. “Who you grinnin’ at?” he asked. “I ain’t your friend.”
“You sure as hell ain’t,” Curly agreed.
Scar-face Harry and Rattlesnake Sam quit drinking and looked on. Shorty’s face twitched with anger. He put the cigar back between his teeth and turned back to his drink. He stood there for a moment trembling in a silent rage and glaring at Curly in the mirror. There was pure murder in his eyes. He must have been thinking about the bad name the big rustler had given him. “That’s all right, Curly,” he said. “You’ll be grinnin’ at the buzzards before long.”
“It’s your turn to feed them next,” Curly said.
Those words would soon come back to haunt him.
Mad Dog Shorty gritted his teeth and passed a trembling hand over his face. Without warning he lost control of himself, screamed something and threw his glass at Curly. Then he grabbed his bowie knife and danced toward him, yelling and waving the long blade.
Curly was tempted to ignore him, for he didn’t believe Shorty would get close enough to do any damage. But the bow-legged runt seemed past both fear and reason. The way he hopped about and shrieked, while making passes at Curly with the blade, made the big rustler want to bind and gag him. But as that was too much trouble he just laid Shorty out with a long hard right between the eyes. Shorty grunted, hit the floor on his back, slid halfway across the room and lay still.
“You two want some of the same?” Curly asked Rattlesnake Sam and Scar-face Harry, who were watching with wide eyes.
Scar-face saw Rattlesnake shake his head and did likewise.
Curly still had the cigar in his left hand. He put it back between his teeth and motioned for another drink.
Blondie poured it, studying him with her level eyes. “Why pick on the little fellow?” she asked.
“He had it coming,” Curly said. But he had trouble meeting her steady gaze. By using his fist on Shorty, he had violated the code of the West. No one would have blamed him if he had drawn a gun and shot Shorty dead. But for a big strong fellow to club a little runt like Shorty with his fist— that was bad form. Gentlemen did not fight with their fists, or hardly anyone else for that matter. Fistfights, when they occurred at all, usually ended in gunplay. When one of the bruisers realized he was getting the worst of it, he grabbed his hogleg and settled the argument once and for all. What happened to him afterwards usually depended on how many friends the dead man had, and how much snake poison they had consumed.