“Well, that means he’s either dead or pulled out.”
“Do we go in there after him?” Utah asked.
“Not me,” John T. said. He slipped back and into the timber on the other side of the game trail Smoke had been using. One by one, the others joined him.
They grouped together, very conscious of the bodies of Dorman and Elliot, lying not thirty feet away, back-shot by their employers.
“Comes a time, boys, when a man’s got to use some common sense,” John T. said. “Personal, I think we should have used it about a month ago.”
“What are you sayin’, John?” Gil asked.
“That it’s time for us to go. We got some money out of this. More’un we’d have made in five years ordinarily. Boys, we’ve left bodies all over the place durin’ this so-called hunt. It’s time to pull out.”
“That’s what Dorman and Elliot tried to do,” Cat pointed out.
“That ain’t gonna happen to us, now that we know what to expect.”
“How about our money down in Dodge?” Gil asked.
“Hell with it. We can take that check that Miss Hoity-Toity wrote us back yonder in the park. How about it?”
“You boys go on,” Roy Drum said. “I want Jensen and the real big money.”
“It ain’t worth dyin’ for, Roy.”
“I’m with Roy,” Cat Brown said. “But we’ll see to it that you don’t get back-shot.”
“I’m stayin’,” Utah Red said.
“I’m goin’,” Montana Jess said.
“I’m with Montana and John T.,” Gil Webb said.
The six men walked over to von Hausen. “I’ll take that big money check you offered back in the park,” John T. said. “We’re pullin’ out.”
“Who is ‘we’?” Gunter asked.
“Me, Montana, and Gil. Hand over the check.”
Von Hausen noticed that the gunfighter’s hand was close to the butt of his six-gun. He reached into his jacket and took out a waterproof pouch and opened it. He handed John T. the check.
John T. looked at it, then folded it and put it in his pocket. “Thank you kindly, von Hausen. Roy and Utah and Cat will see to it that you good folks don’t back-shoot us on the way out. Adios, ladies and gents.”
Several long moments ticked by before anyone spoke. The sounds of the hired-guns’ horses faded into silence as the men left on the trail south. Finally, Gunter said, “Does anybody have a plan?”
“Hire more men?” Marlene asked.
“Forget it,” Utah told her. “No time for that.”
“I think I’ll make a pot of coffee and fry up some bacon,” Roy Drum said. “What about them bodies?”
“Push ’em over the side of that ravine yonder,” Cat said. “I don’t feel like diggin’ no damn holes.”
“We don’t have a shovel anyways,” Utah pointed out. “It got lost yesterday when Jensen ambushed us.”
Roy built a fire while Utah and Cat hauled the bodies away and shoved them over the side, into the ravine. Roy had the bacon frying when the men returned.
“It might work,” von Hausen said, looking at the trio of gunslicks. “Those are the hardest of the hardcases. We’re a very small force now, and we’ll be able to move faster and much more quietly.”
He looked up, then stood up. He thought he’d heard a very faint yell.
“What’s the matter?” Maria asked.
“I thought I heard something. A yell. Yes. I’m sure I did.”
The faint yelling reached them all.
“That’s Andrea,” Gunter said. “She escaped!”
“I doubt it,” Utah said, not getting up from his position by the fire. “Jensen probably got tired of listenin’ to her complain and cut her loose.”
“You men go get her,” von Hausen ordered.
“You hired us to kill Jensen,” Roy said. “Not find lost females. Just give a shout or two. She’ll wander over here.”
“Heartless brutes,” Marlene said.
“Right, lady,” Utah replied.
Von Hausen and party began shouting and waving their arms and jumping up and down. After a few minutes, Andrea staggered in, collapsing by the fire, telling all sorts of wild stories about being beaten and raped by Smoke Jensen.
“You’re a goddamn liar,” Roy Drum said flatly. “He wouldn’t touch the likes of you with a coup stick. I hate Smoke Jensen, but he never raped no woman in his life. I’d be willin’ to bet everything I own he ain’t never even been unfaithful to his wife. So why don’t you just shut your lyin’ damn mouth.”
Andrea glared hate at the man, but she said no more about being assaulted. She slurped at a cup of coffee and said, “He said he was going to whip you in a fight, Frederick. Said he was going to kick your face in.”
“Nonsense!” von Hausen said. “The man has better sense than to think he could best me in a ring. I’ve fought the best of fighters and never lost. He was just blowing off steam, that’s all.”
“Don’t tangle with Jensen in a fist-fight,” Utah said. “ ’Cause you’ll lose.”
“Ridiculous!” von Hausen snorted.
Utah shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t say you wasn’t warned.”
“What else did he say, Andrea?” Gunter asked, getting a blanket and draping it around her shoulders. The day was growing increasingly cool and damp.
“That tomorrow you all die.”
It was a sensation, an emotion, that all skilled gunhandlers experience at one time or the other; that feeling of knowing that today is the day.
Utah and Cat and Roy knew it. They did not speak of it, but each knew the other was sharing the emotion.
Cat almost dropped his coffee cup when the wild howling of a wolf cut the early morning air. It was from the throat of someone very close to the camp.
“Let’s do it!” Roy Drum said. “Let’s by God get this over with once and for all.”
He picked up his rifle and walked to the edge of the timber that surrounded the camp. A single shot rang out. Roy slumped to his knees and leaned up against a tree. His rifle fell from his lifeless fingers.
Cat looked at Utah. Both men shook their heads. They rose as one and saddled their horses.
“What are you men doing?” Marlene screamed at them.
“Pullin’ out, lady,” Utah told her.
“What about your money?” von Hausen asked. There was a tremor in his voice that no one among them had ever heard before.
“I ‘spect that John T. knows a way to shake it out of that Dodge City lawyer feller. If he don’t, I do,” Cat said. He rolled his blankets and groundsheet and tied it back of his saddle.
“Smoke!” Utah called. “Me and Cat are the only ones left. We’re pullin’ out. I’d be obliged if you’d keep these foreigners from back-shootin’ us.”
“I’ll do that,” the call came from the damp woods. “I let a couple of others go. I’ll do the same for you boys.”
“ ’Ppreciate it. See you around, Smoke.”
“I hope not,” Smoke called. “ ’Cause when you do, you better drag iron.”
“It was just a job of work,” Utah called.
“Get out of here before I change my mind,” Smoke called.
“Either strap on guns or toss them all in a pile,” Smoke called.
“Kill him, Gunter!” Maria yelled, grabbing at his arm. “Kill the arrogant bastard.”
But Gunter had lost the taste for the hunt. He unbuckled his belt and let his sidearm fall to the ground.
“You coward!” Maria screamed at him. She jerked up a pistol and emptied it into the dark timber.
“You missed, lady,” Smoke told her, his voice coming from behind her.
Marlene grabbed up a rifle and fired at his voice, working the lever until the weapon was empty.
“Over here,” Smoke called, from a new location.
Andrea put her face into her hands and began sobbing.
Marlene threw the rifle to the ground and stood trembling with rage.
“The Army’s coming,” Smoke called. “I saw the patrol about an hour ago from a ridge. They had some rough country to get through, so I figure they’ll be here in about an hour or so. Then I’ll do what somebody should have done a long time ago.”
“And what is that?” von Hausen called.
“Stomp your damned guts out.”
Von Hausen laughed at him. “I accept your challenge, gunfighter. But why wait until the Army gets here? I don’t understand that.”
“Because I don’t trust any of you back-shooting bastards and bitches.”
Von Hausen removed his gunbelt and tossed it to one side. “All of you, put your weapons in a pile. Every weapon. All the military can do is escort us to the ship. We might as well have some fun waiting for them to get here.”
Every weapon, including hunting knives was piled onto a blanket. Von Hausen pointed to a long flat rock about three feet high. “All of you sit over there,” he told his friends. “And do not, under any circumstances, try to assist me in any way during this brief boxing match.” He raised his voice. “Is that satisfactory, Mister Jensen?”
“Suits me,” the voice came from behind von Hausen and it startled him. Smoke hung his gunbelt on a limb and pulled on a pair of leather work gloves.
“We’ll now set the rules,” von Hausen said.
“No guns or knives,” Smoke said. “Those are the rules. No time limit, no neutral corner, no knock-down rules. So anytime you’re ready, you pompous, over-bearing, arrogant jackass, come on and fight.”
Von Hausen assumed the boxer’s stance: his left fist held out from his body, elbow bent, his right fist up, protecting his jaw. “You may approach and make the initial move, Jensen.”
“OK,” Smoke said, then jumped at the man and hit him in the face with both fists.
Von Hausen backed up, not really hurt, just startled at such a move. He flicked an exploring punch at Smoke. Smoke ducked it and busted von Hausen in the belly. That got Smoke a hard fist to the side of his head. Smoke spun around and kicked von Hausen on the knee.
The German yelped and backed up.
“Oh, foul, foul!” Gunter yelled.
Smoke ignored them and pressed von Hausen, hitting him with a combination that bloodied the man’s mouth. Smoke followed that with a hard left to the man’s belly. The German tried to clench. Smoke threw him down to the dirt and backed up.
Von Hausen jumped to his boots and charged Smoke. Smoke tripped him and clubbed the man’s neck on his way down. The German got up, spitting dirt. Now he was mad, which is exactly what Smoke wanted.
“You peasant!” von Hausen hissed at him.
Smoke put one of his peasant’s fists through the nobleman’s guard and busted von Hausen’s regal nose, sending blood flying. Smoke ducked a punch and waded in, smashing both fists against the man’s belly and landing a vicious uppercut that snapped von Hausen’s teeth together. The German was having to breathe through his mouth; his honker was busted.
Smoke caught a fist to the side of his head, another got through: a glancing blow on his jaw. Smoke back-heeled von Hausen and sent the man crashing to the rocky ground. Von Hausen came up snorting and bellowing. He came at Smoke, both big fists flailing the air. Smoke caught von Hausen’s forearm, turned slightly, and flipped the heavier man, sending him hard to the ground.
With a roar, von Hausen was up and trying to get set. Smoke never let him. Smoke stepped in and smashed the man’s face with hard left’s and right’s. The blows staggered von Hausen and tore his face. Smoke timed one perfectly and sent von Hausen to the ground, on his hands and knees.
“Time, time!” Gunter yelled.
“Shut your damned mouth,” Smoke told him.
Gunter shut up.
“Get up, Baron,” Smoke said. Then all the rage he had kept under control for weeks boiled to the surface. He cussed the man, calling him every filthy name he could think of. And being raised among mountain men, he knew more than the average fellow.
The Baron was a little slow getting up. Smoke kicked him in the belly, the blow lifting the man off his hands and knees about six inches. Von Hausen rolled and slowly got to his feet. He raised his hands and Smoke started a punch about a foot behind his shoulder and gave it to von Hausen. The German’s teeth flew from his mouth under the right fist and Smoke tore one ear off with a thundering left that whistled through the air. It sounded like a pistol shot when it landed.
When the man was sinking down to his knees, Smoke came under his jaw with an uppercut. All present could hear the jaw pop when Smoke hit him. Frederick von Hausen hit the cool damp earth and did not move. Marlene screamed and ran to his side.
Smoke walked over to Gunter and before the startled man could move, Smoke knocked him slap off the rock. Gunter tumbled over the flat rock and lay unconscious on the ground.
Smoke pointed a finger at Maria and Andrea. “If you two even so much as twitch, I’ll shoot you.” He walked over to von Hausen, jerked off the man’s wide leather belt and grabbed Marlene by her long blonde hair. He dragged her over to the rock, sat down with her across his knees, and proceeded to give her fanny a long overdue beating with the belt.