Note: This is a novelette, at something over 12000 words. For that reason, I chose to publish it here in two parts.
Shortly after dawn on Thursday morning, the arid air of Dalton, Texas was still chilly from the cloudless night. Marshal Bob Gibson sat in a straight back chair on the platform at the train station. The chair was leaned back against the wall.
Beneath the cuffs of his brown canvas trousers, his boots extended to the planks, his right ankle crossed over his left. A Colt nestled in a holster on the right side of his waist. The holster followed along the outside of his right thigh. It was tied off above his knee with a thin leather strap.
His arms were crossed over his chest, the off-white shirt sleeves thinned at the elbows. His brown three-button vest hung open, revealing the right point of the star on his left breast. His head was tilted forward, his chin near his chest. His hat was tipped forward over his eyes, which were peacefully closed.
For the moment.
A man has to take his rest where he can find it. It had been a rough week.
But he wasn’t sleeping. He was listening. And waiting.
In the distance, a train whistle sounded. Then again.
Gettin’ to be that time.
Barely discernably, he shook his head.
Why can’t people just mind their damn manners? Either that or stay home?
If Johnny Pilsen had done either one, and he’d still be breathing.
He’d still be breathing and I’d be breathing a lot easier.
But that isn’t what happened.
A week and a day ago, early on Thursday night, Johnny Pilsen got bored and picked on at the same time. Then he got rowdy and reckless.
And then he got dead.
* * *
A new batch of seven wanted posters lay face up on the desk before Marshal Gibson. Behind him, leaning slightly forward to look over his shoulder, stood Zeke Masters.
The marshal picked up a poster and pointed. “Now this ol’ boy here’s a real hard case. And—”
“He looks like a hard case, that’s fer sure.”
If anyone knew a hard case when he saw one, it was Zeke. He alternated between being the town drunk and a mostly helpful volunteer deputy. If he had one truly annoying personal habit, it was his penchant for interruption.
Zeke absentmindedly brought his left hand to his mouth and bit off a fresh plug of chewing tobacco. He dropped the remainder back into his left pants pocket. He worked the plug into position between his teeth with his tongue, then bit down. A small bit of brown juice seeped from the left corner of his mouth. It bubbled there, threating to drop.
The marshal turned his chair slightly. He looked up at the thin old man, then gestured toward the guest chair on the other side of his desk. “Why don’t you have a seat, Zeke? No reason we shouldn’t both be comfortable. In fact, there’s no need for you to stay. I can finish goin’ over these myself.”
Zeke wagged one hand in the air. “No no, now. I don’t mind stayin’. You forget, this used to be my job. I know how lonely it can get.” He cackled and moved around the desk.
His thinning white hair was tousled, and his face and neck were dark from too many hours in the sun. Except for the pale band across the top of his forehead. His hat usually covered that. A sheen of alcohol sweat covered his face, neck and chest down to where his long-john top was buttoned.
His trousers were so filthy it was hard to tell what color they were. Some approximation of light brown maybe. Or maybe dark tan. And his once-black boots were scuffed to a sickly off-white.
His long-john shirt was stained in several layers with sweat. The most recent layer, especially beneath his arms and in the big half-oval below his neck, was still damp. His suspenders hung from his hips and across the back of his thighs. His pungent scent draped around him like a cloud.
He grabbed the back of the guest chair and began dragging it around the desk.
The marshal waved a hand side to side. “Oh. You don’t have to do that, Zeke. Just sit over there.”
“Aw, nonsense, now.” His Adam’s apple bobbed beneath his stubbled chin. “This way I can see what you’re seein’ while you’re seein’ it. Make it go faster. Maybe even give you a few pointers.” He shook his head. “You young’uns are good, but you got a lot to learn.”
He set the chair firmly to the marshal’s right. The chair complained against the plank floor as he turned it to face the desk. When he plopped down, his personal cloud of vapor came with him.
“All right.” Gibson almost grinned, then looked away for a moment to get a breath of air.
When he turned back to the front, he slid his chair away a bit and angled it. Instead of leaning forward over the poster, he leaned back a bit. Then he reached out and tapped it from a distance. “Now what I was gonna say, we keep an eye out for this ol’ boy, we’ll find the others pretty close by. This is Charley Pilsen. He’s generally got three or four—”
Zeke nodded, then looked up at him. “Ain’t got enough sense to keep himself hid, does he?”
Despite himself, Gibson grinned. “That’s right, but that’s a good thing. Like the book says, pride goes before a—”
The door to the marshal’s office burst open. “Marshal, there’s trouble brewing over at the Low Stakes.”
It was Red Cramer, the second bartender and Faro dealer at the Low Stakes Saloon. He’d been in town only a few weeks, but he seemed an upright sort. He was usually down on his luck, though, at least until the Low Stakes hired him. He was wearing his good bowler hat and his good dark-grey suit.
Probably being the dealer tonight.
Gibson nodded. “All right.” He stood and turned to reach for his gun belt. It was hanging on a peg behind his desk. “Who is it?”
Gibson strapped on his gun belt. He frowned as he turned around. “Pilsen? What’s he doin’ in town? Today’s Thursday isn’t it?”
Cramer nodded. “Yes sir it is. Far as I can tell he’s fixin’ to shoot up the place. Only he ain’t in no kind’a shape to tell the differ’nce ‘tween place and people. So I thought I ought’a get you.”
Zeke looked up at the marshal. “Trouble maker?”
The marshal looked at Cramer. “All right. Thanks, Red. I’ll be along in a minute.”
As Cramer left, the marshal glanced down at Zeke. “Not usually. You know Johnny, Zeke. Remember? Got a nice little spread out west of town? He most often comes in on Saturday afternoon. Lets his woman off at the store, then walks across to the Low Stakes for a few drinks. Friendly fella most of the time.”
Zeke looked at the poster again, then tapped it. “Related to this’n?”
Gibson nodded. “Johnny’s his brother. You might say Johnny’s the white sheep of the family. The souls on the rest of ‘em are darker’n a well digger’s butt at midnight. And no moon.”
Zeke stood. “Well hell, I’ll go along with you.”
“No, now you don’t need to do that. I’ll be back in—”
But Zeke had already turned away and grabbed his hat off the potbellied stove. He’d set it there when he came in earlier after he tested the stove with his hand. “Nonsense.” He gestured toward the marshal’s Colt. “And you won’t need that hogleg. You just follow my lead.” As he turned away, he shook his head. “Always somethin’ you young’uns need to learn.” Then he opened the door and walked out.
The marshal shook his head. He couldn’t help but grin at the old man’s tenacity. As he started toward the door, he said quietly, “Get him, Zeke.”
If the old man could get within shouting distance, Johnny’d probably pass out from the smell. Then it’d be a simple matter of dragging him up to a cell to sleep it off.
He laughed and pulled the door closed behind him.
On the boardwalk, he looked up the street toward the Low Stakes and shook his head again.
Zeke was already a block away. He was almost to the door.
The marshal laughed lightly again as he started walking.
Old man moves pretty fast when he wants to.
He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey Zeke. Hold on a minute. I can’t learn from you if—”
But Zeke turned right off the boardwalk. The batwing doors clacked and creaked as he shoved them open. They clacked again as they swung shut behind him.
Another grin started across Gibson’s face, but an explosion from inside the saloon erased it. Then a second shot sounded.
Gibson frowned and sped up. “Aw damn it, Johnny,” he muttered. “Put that damn gun away.” He stepped off the end of the boardwalk and ran across the street, then up onto the boardwalk on the other side.
As he neared the entrance, two men and a bar girl shoved the batwings aside and ran out.
One of the men looked wide-eyed at the marshal. “He’s shootin’ up the place, Marshal!”
Gibson nodded. “It’s all right. You folks go on.” He turned and peered over the batwings.
Zeke Masters lay face-up on the floor just inside the door. A crimson stain was spreading out rapidly from a gaping hole in his chest at the bottom of the sweat stain.
The bar stretched away along the right wall. The place was narrow, no more than thirty feet wide, and around a hundred feet deep.
Along the left wall was the Faro table. Red Cramer was back at his dealer station, though crouched down below the table.
Why did he come back in here?
Next to the Faro table were two small, round customer tables with four empty chairs at each one. Beyond them was an upright piano, then more tables in two rows. Four tables were vacant.
Two other tables, the first one in the first row and the fifth one in the second row, had been turned on end by their occupants.
Two men were crouched behind the near one. Cow hands from the looks of them. Young, skinny, scared and bone weary. They both wore lightweight canvas pants and long-sleeved shirts, one a faded blue-green and one faded grey. Neither was wearing a gun belt.
The three men behind the more distant table were different. They were all dressed similarly in off-white, long-sleeved shirts and dark pants. Each wore a blue bandanna around his neck and a gun belt slung low on his hip.
The nearest one was short at around 5’8”. He was thin and wiry, rawboned looking. He looked as young as the cowboys at the other table, but he had a hungry, anxious look about him. Like he hadn’t been in any real trouble, but he could barely wait for the first time. His hat, a black, flat-topped gambler, topped a shaggy head of blonde hair.
The man in the center had black hair and dark blue eyes. Probably a Mexican from his complexion. He was a little shorter than the first man, and skinny as a rail. A wide-brimmed sombrero hung from a braided leather cord loosely draped around his neck.
His face looked as if it had been pinched between a rock and a log, and his cheeks were scarred with pockmarks. A wide scar ran from the outside corner of his right eye almost to his chin. Probably as dangerous as a cornered rat. A fighter, and something about him looked familiar.
The man to the Mexican’s left was tall, probably 6’2” and almost heavy. Beneath a wide-brimmed off-white hat, his face was almost perfectly round. Ragged, dirty brown hair hung almost to his shoulders from beneath the sides of his hat. Both he and the Mexican looked to be in their thirties.
Those three definitely were not cow hands.
The marshal shifted his attention to the far end of the bar.
There stood Johnny Pilsen, barely. He seemed to have trouble just remaining upright. He was a few feet from the bar, his almost-empty whisky bottle and a shot glass.
The bartender was nowhere in sight. Probably ducked down behind the bar.
The knees of Pilsen’s faded dungarees were nearly worn through. Off-white suspenders stretched up over the shoulders of his off-white, long-sleeve shirt. He wasn’t wearing a gun belt. Probably he carried his revolver in the waistband of his pants when he wasn’t waving it around.
But he’d never gotten that rowdy before. Why tonight?
Johnny’s dun-colored boots were round toed and severely scuffed. His ragged hat was tipped back slightly on his head. A shock of red hair hung down almost to his left eye. And his facial features were twisted into a rage.
He waved his revolver and yelled, “Ain’t nobody can tell me I cain’t shoot! Nobody alive can outshoot a Pilsen!” He wavered and looked as if he might fall over. Then he looked toward the men hiding behind the tables and yelled, “Here! You watch! I’ll get this one too!”
He grabbed a shot glass off a table and tossed it under-handed toward the ceiling, then cocked his revolver. He closed one eye and followed the glass from its zenith almost to the floor before he fired.
The men behind the tables tensed as the bullet slammed into the far side of the piano. Dull music sounded, accompanied by the sound of wires snapping.
Marshal Gibson pushed open the batwings and stepped into the room. He moved quickly to the right and stopped behind the squared-off near end of the bar. Just loudly enough to be heard, he said, “Hey, Johnny. That was some pretty good shooting. But what say we give it a rest now?” He forced a quiet laugh. “I think maybe you’re makin’ some’a these folks nervous.”
Pilsen’s voice was almost shrill. “Yeah? Yeah? Well they ought’a be nervous! ‘Cause I’m a Pilsen, damn it! An’ I know what I can do an’ what I cain’t do! An’ one thing I can damn sure do is shoot!”
“I can see that. Now I can see that. But the demonstration’s gotta be over for tonight.”
“Now Johnny, I need you to lay your gun on the bar for me. All right? Then we’ll talk about this.”
Pilsen shook his head hard. “No sir!” He almost fell over but stepped hard to the left to catch himself. “I ain’t layin’ my damn gun nowhere!”
“Johnny, now you got a nice spread out there. That’s a lot to lose over nothin’, you hear me? Just lay your gun down. Then you can sleep it off and—”
“I ain’t losin’ nothin’! An’ I ain’t sleepin’ nothin’ off! An’ I ain’t layin’ my damn gun down!” He brought it up and fired in Gibson’s direction.
A stream of white smoke belched from the barrel. The bullet slapped the wall a few feet to the right of the marshal.
Pilsen rocked his head back and laughed. Then he staggered again. But again he found his balance and caught himself.
The marshal held up his left hand, palm out. “Damn it, Johnny, drop it now. Don’t make me have to—”
Pilsen leaned forward for a moment. He straightened and said, “Wait a minute! Wait one damn minute!” He leaned forward again, stared and pointed with his left index finger. “It’s you! Marshal Damn Bobby Boy Gibson!”
He wavered, then leaned forward again. “Yo’re tryin’a kill my brother!” He wavered again, then started toward the marshal. “Yo’re tryin’a kill my damn brother!” He cocked the revolver and fired again.
The bullet tore a hole in the corner of the bar and ricocheted into the wall behind Gibson to his left.
Pilsen stumbled forward, his eyes filled with hatred. “They told me about you!” He reached up with his left hand to cock his revolver again. When he was almost to Gibson’s end of the bar, he yelled, “I’ll kill you, y’rotten brother-killin’ son of a—”
The marshal brought up his Colt. “Stop, damn it! Johnny, stop!”
But the man came around the end of the bar, his revolver leveled. He fired..
The line of smoke from Pilsen’s revolver and the bullet ahead of it screamed past Gibson’s right arm and splatted into the wall behind him.
At almost the same time, a stream of white smoke mushroomed against Pilsen’s chest. The bullet drove him hard onto his back, his head lying near Zeke’s right hip.
Pilsen moaned. “They tol’ me—”
His right foot flexed, and he lay still.
Gibson stared at the inert form, his Colt still in his hand. “Damn it! Damn it!”
The bartender suddenly appeared across the end of the bar. “You didn’t have no choice, Marshal. I seen the whole thing.”
Gibson slowly pried his gaze from the thin figure of Johnny Pilsen and looked at the bartender.
The bartender met his gaze, then looked away. “Well, what I mean, I heard it.”
The marshal nodded and holstered his Colt. “What got him started, Jack?”
Jack Martin had been the bartender for as long as Gibson could remember. He was somewhere north of sixty years old and lean. He always wore a black garter on the left sleeve of his pinstriped white shirt. He kept his thinning black and grey hair combed straight back, and he tended his wide handlebar moustache with great care.
He leaned forward and gestured across the room where the five men were righting the two tables they had upended earlier. Quietly, he said, “One’a those cowboys at the first table was talkin’ about Pilsen’s brother.” He wrinkled his brow. “Charlie? Somethin’ like that. Anyway, they were just talkin’ among themselves. I don’t think they even knew Pilsen was in here.
“Anyhow, one of ‘em said he noted there were wanted posters out for Charlie Pilsen and asked the other one wasn’t he from around here.
“The other one laughed and said maybe, but he’d best not show his face around here anymore or you’d slap him in jail.
“They weren’t talkin’ loud, Marshal. Just talkin’ among themselves while they washed off the dust. But I guess Johnny there overheard ‘em. He said there wasn’t any chance of that. He said any Pilsen could outshoot you or anybody else in this town.
“Then the two cowboys laughed. Still not loud. Not like they meant anything.
“Well, then one of ‘em said, ‘Sit down, drunk.’ You know. Somethin’ like that.
“Then over at the other table over there, where those three guys are, one of them—I think the big guy there, the one just settin’ down—I think he’s the one said Johnny wouldn’t make a pimple on his brother’s butt. Somethin’ like that.”
Martin looked at the marshal. “He said that kind’a quiet too. And he wasn’t lookin’ at Johnny or anything, but he was definitely talking directly to him. And then he laughed kind’a easy like.”
He turned to look in the direction of the men again. “And before I knew it, Johnny pulled his gun and started wavin’ it around.
“Well, now that’s about the time ol’ Red lit out through the door. I figured he was gonna go get you.” He glanced in Red’s direction and frowned. “Beats me why he came back.”
Gibson nodded. “Then what?”
Martin shrugged. “That’s about it I guess.” Martin glanced down at Zeke’s body and shook his head. “That’s when ol’ Zeke come runnin’ in. Sure wish he hadn’t come runnin’ in like that.”
“So do I. But I couldn’t stop him. Hell, he got down here almost before I could get my gun on. So Johnny shot him?”
“Well, yeah, but it was an accident. Johnny tossed up a shot glass to shoot at, but he was so drunk— Well, he traced it down and fired, and I guess Zeke was on the other side of it.”
The marshal glanced at Zeke, then around the room. “Damn. All of this for nothin’.”
“Looks like it.” Martin gestured with his chin toward Zeke. “Y’know, Zeke was a good’un back in the day. I saw him run men off with nothin’ but a handful of rocks more than once.” He quickly glanced back at Gibson and raised one hand. “Not that a handful of rocks would’a done it today.”
Martin straightened. “Listen, name your pleasure, Marshal. It’s on the house.”
“Thanks. Another time maybe.” He gestured with his chin in the direction of the men at the two tables. “You say you know those men?”
Martin said, “The two on the left there work for ol’ Emmet Moseby out at the Lazy Hay. Just got back from a cattle drive down to Fort Worth I think. I guess the army was needin’ some beef. You know, that’s a pretty short drive, but it took ‘em a good—”
“What about the others?”
Martin stopped and looked at them, then back at the marshal. “No. No, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen any of those guys before. What’re you thinkin’?”
“I’m not sure. You say the big guy there seemed to know Charley Pilsen?”
Martin nodded. “He was talkin’ like he did. But the others too. I mean, they didn’t say anything specific, but all of ‘em seem to be runnin’ together. And all of ‘em were kind’a jokin’ around at Johnny’s expense.”
“Uh huh. All right. Thanks again, Jack.”
He turned and made his way toward the table where the two cow hands were seated.
Better to get them out of the way first. “Hey, fellas, do me a favor, would you? Both of you, go on over and tell the undertaker what happened. Tell him I’d like him to get these two bodies outta here.”
One of the men looked up. He glanced at the other table and the three strangers there, then looked at the marshal and nodded. “Sure thing, Marshal. Sure sorry for what happened.” He downed his drink, then stood as he glanced at his companion. “C’mon, Mason. Let’s go get the undertaker.”
The other man stood, then looked at the marshal. “Want us to drag those two out with us? We could—”
“Nah, that’s all right. Just go on and tell the undertaker for me, okay?”
The man nodded, and he and his friend left.
As the marshal watched them go, he noticed Red Cramer was still at the Faro table. “Go on with ‘em, Red.”
“That’s all right, Marshal. I’d better stay. Never know when somebody might come in wantin’ a game.”
The batwings clacked behind the other two. The marshal nodded, then turned to the men at the other table.
Sure enough, the Mexican was sitting in the center chair with his back to the wall and facing the bar. Of the three, he was probably the leader. He’d removed his sombrero and hung it from the back of his chair.
The larger man was still on the Mexican’s left. He cast a quick glance at the marshal, then looked away.
His small, mean eyes were set closer together than seemed necessary over a pug nose. His hands trembled slightly as he lit a cigar.
Probably just a bully who depends on his size. That and a big mouth.
The man on the left met the marshal’s gaze. He’d never charged into a thunderstorm, but he seemed anxious to try it. He twisted half of his mouth up into a sneer. But he was still in the showoff stage and wasn’t of immediate concern.
The marshal shifted his gaze to the Mexican. “How you boys doin’ tonight? Havin’ a good time?”
The man looked up and nodded. In a thick Spanish accent, he said, “Ee’s good enough. An’ joo?”
“You fellas just passin’ through?”
“Nah. We’ waitin’ for a fren’. He weel be here soon I think.”
“How soon?” The Mexican shrugged.
“A day? A week? How soon?”
The Mexican looked at him. “Oh. One hour. Mebbe two.” He shrugged again. “Or mebbe one day or two. Mebbe three.”
“Uh huh.” The marshal jerked one thumb over his shoulder. “You see what happened over there?”
The man shrugged. “Oh sí. An ol’ man got heemself kill’.”
“Yeah, I know that much. Any idea what caused it?”
The man glanced at his friends, then looked up at the marshal and smiled. “Why joo askin’ me, Marshal?”
“Oh. Well for starters, you’re facin’ the bar.”
His gaze still locked on the marshal, the Mexican said, “For starters eh?” He laughed, then averted his gaze and shook his head slowly. “Well, anyway, no sir. I di’n see nothing.”
The thin man said, “I did, Marshal. Why don’t you ask me?”
The marshal looked at him.
The man’s sneer wavered but remained in place. Finally he gestured with his chin. “That fella you shot, he just jumped up and started shootin’ for no reason. Fact is, he—”
The Mexican glared at him. “Billy, go sen’ tha’ telegram.” He glanced at the marshal. “An’ be sure to geeve our fren’ the lates’ news.”
The young one looked at him. “The latest—” His gaze flicked to the body of Johnny Pilsen. “Oh. Okay.” Then he looked at the Mexican and frowned. “But I thought we was gonna telegraph him tomorrow.”
Tersely, the Mexican said, “I change’ my min’.”
Johnny downed a half-shot of whiskey, then set the glass on the table. “Sure, Manny, whatever you say. Only, the telegraph office, it prob’ly ain’t even—”
Then the marshal recognized him. Manuel Villareal. He was a minor bandito in east Texas and southern Arkansas. What was he doing up here in the panhandle? And running with Charley Pilsen? He’d come up in the world.
The Mexican continued to look at Billy, and his eyes narrowed. Quietly and with the air of patience stretched thin, he said, “Eef the man for sen’ing the telegrams ees no’ there, then go fin’ heem, hokay? Go now.”
“Oh. Yes sir.” The kid pushed his chair back and stood. He glanced at the marshal, the sneer erased by humility, then turned and left.
The marshal turned his attention back to Villareal. “Your friend— Would that be Charley Pilsen?”
Before Manny could respond, the larger, heavyset man tapped his cigar heavily at the edge of the table, then looked up. “You gonna ask me what happened too, Marshal? I’m sittin’ right here.”
Manny glared at him. “Cecil, watch you’ manners por favor. The marshal here ees askin’ me a question.”
Cecil glanced at Manny, then put his cigar between his teeth and slouched back in his chair. A sneer formed behind the cigar. With his thumb and forefinger, he began rotating the cigar between his lips and glanced up at the marshal again. Pointedly, he said, “Ain’t none’a his damn business who our friends are.”
He moved the cigar and downed a shot of whiskey, then put the cigar back in the right side of his mouth.
The marshal ignored him. His gaze still trained on the Mexican, he gestured toward the smaller dead man on the floor. “Is your friend that man’s brother?”
The Mexican didn’t bother to look around. He smirked. “Tha’ man has a brother?”
The marshal nodded. “Yeah, all right.” He gestured toward the nearly empty bottle on the table. “Drink up. When you finish that, you men should go ahead and leave town.”
The big one muttered, “We ain’t goin’ no damn where. We’re stayin’ right here ‘til—”
Manny looked at him. “Cecil, por favor.” He shook his head and put one finger to his lips.
The big man glanced at him, then looked away.
Manny looked at the marshal. “We weel go, but wha’ abou’ our fren’? We should’n leave heem to arrive without even a welcome.”
The marshal nodded. “All right. In that case, I’ll have to ask you to come with me.”
Manny frowned. “Wha’? Where?”
Cecil glanced at his friend. “He means to the jail.” He turned his head to glare at the marshal. “And we ain’t done nothin’.”
Still the marshal ignored him. He kept his eyes trained on the Mexican.
Manny said, “Why joo wanna put me in a cell, man?”
“Let’s just say I fear for your personal safety. Until your friend arrives, I’m placing you into protective custody. You can wait for your friend in my little hotel. It’s just down the street.”
The Mexican flicked his gaze toward Cecil, then back to the marshal. He laughed. “My personal safety? Who’s gonna do anything to me?”
Quietly, the marshal said, “I am if you don’t get up.”
The big man shoved his chair back. “Like hell!” He started to rise and went for his gun.
With a flinch, the marshal drew his Colt and laid the barrel alongside the man’s right temple.
Cecil fell back into his chair, which collapsed over backward.
As Cecil was falling, the Mexican’s hands left the table and he stood, hunched. But about the time his right hand touched the butt of his revolver, there was a plaintive click. He stopped and looked up.
The marshal’s Colt was already cocked and trained on a spot between his eyes. “Let’s go, señor Villareal.”
The Mexican smiled and nodded as he brought his hands up to his shoulders. “Ah, so joo know of me, eh?”
“I know enough. Lay your gun on the table, then step back.”
An explosion sounded to the marshal’s left. Something punched him in the left arm just below his shoulder and he staggered to the right.
In one smooth motion, Villareal pulled his revolver and cocked it.
But the marshal caught his balance and fired.
The bullet caught Villareal in the throat. He jerked backward, his Remington falling from his hand as he slumped in the corner formed by the wall and the floor.
Another explosion sounded to the marshal’s left just as he turned.
The bullet missed, passing inches behind him.
At the Faro table, Red Cramer was hunched over, a small revolver in his right hand.
The marshal yelled, “Drop it, Red!”
But the man was cocking the weapon again.
The marshal fired as heavy footfalls sounded on the boardwalk outside.
The bullet hit Cramer in the center of the chest. As his arms flew up and back, he sat heavily in his chair. The batwing doors clacked as his head lolled forward.
The marshal crouched and spun to face the doors.
The man Villareal had called Billy raced in, a scowl on his face, his revolver already in his hand. But when he saw the marshal, he quickly dropped his revolver. As it clattered away across the floor, he flung both hands over his head, then bent and twisted away. “Oh god, don’t shoot!”
The marshal looked at him for a moment, then gestured with his Colt. “Get over by the bar.”
But Billy remained in place. “What? But I ain’t done nothin’, Marshal. You can’t just—”
The marshal quickly glanced to his left. The bartender was nowhere in sight. The marshal yelled, “Jack? You back there?”
The bartender stood up. “Right here, Marshal.”
“You still got that scatter gun of yours behind the bar?”
“Good. Pull it and watch this idiot.” He looked at Billy and gestured with his Colt again. “Git over to the bar, damn it! Now!”
Billy bobbed his head, his hands still in the air. “Yes sir. Yes sir. Just don’t shoot, that’s all. Just don’t shoot.” Walking sideways, his gaze still on the marshal, he started toward the bar.
The marshal glanced around the saloon.
Cecil still lay on the floor, out cold.
Red Cramer was still slumped in his chair at the Faro table.
Other than those two and the bodies of Zeke and Johnny Pilsen, there was nobody in the room aside from Billy, the bartender and himself.
“Hell of a mess,” he said, and holstered his Colt. Then he looked at the bartender. “Thanks, Jack.” He gestured toward the door. “Billy, after you.”
The bartender said, “My pleasure, Marshal.”
The young man frowned at the marshal. “What? Where we goin’?”
“But I ain’t done nothin’.”
“Try disturbin’ the peace an’ assaultin’ a law enforcement officer. Let’s go.” He gestured again.
Billy started toward the batwings. “All right, but Mr. Pilsen ain’t gonna like what you—”
The bartender said, “You want me to get the doc? Have him look at that arm?”
“Later. I wanna get this one locked up first. After we leave, get his gun, will you?”
“Want me to bring it to you?”
“Later. For now just put it in a safe place.” He started toward the batwings, then stopped and looked back. He gestured toward Cecil. “Oh, and collect that one’s gun too, would you? When he wakes up, tell him to come see me if he wants it back.”
“Will do, Marshal.”
The marshal turned away again. He caught the left batwing as it swung open behind Billy, then followed him out.
The undertaker and the two cowboys were just stepping up onto the boardwalk.
The marshal looked at the undertaker. “How you doin’, Brigham?”
“Good, Marshal. Thanks. I hear you had some trouble over here.”
“Some. There are four of ‘em inside that’ll need your services. The fat one beside the table’s just asleep.”
One of the cowboys said, “Four? But I thought—”
“More jumped into the party. See you boys later.” He turned away and followed Billy down the boardwalk.
A few minutes later, he gestured toward the door of his office. “Right there. Next door on the left. Just go on through and put yourself in a cell.”
“All right. But I’m tellin’ you, when Mr. Pilsen gets here—”
“Didn’t I tell you to shut up? Now go on.”
The kid opened the door and looked around.
The desk was centered near the back wall of the room directly opposite the front door. A guest chair sat in front of it.
To the right side of the room was a pot-bellied stove and an old wooden chair. On the wall behind the desk was a gun rack with a shotgun and two Winchester Model 70 carbines.
Along the wall on the left side of the room were three cells, each formed of one-inch thick iron bars from floor to ceiling. Each cell had a small, one-foot square window cut into the wall. Three vertical bars bars filled each window.
He crossed the floor and walked into a cell. He looked down at the bunk, then out through the small, barred window, his hands on his hips.
As the marshal clanged the cell door closed, he turned the key in the lock. “So I guess you sent the telegram.”
Billy turned around. The sneer was back. “I sent it. An’ he ain’t gonna be too happy. I reckon when he gets here—”
“And when will that be?”
Billy grinned. “I guess you’d like to know that, wouldn’t you?”
The marshal looked at the floor and shook his head. Then he looked up. “Are you just stupid, or what? Here I am, savin’ you from a life of crime and an early grave, and you’re still poppin’ off at the mouth.”
He paused. “Well, I guess I might as well get it over with.” He drew his Colt. “Now, you don’t say when he’s gettin’ here, I’m gonna save you the trouble of waitin’ for that early grave.”
“You can’t do that!”
The marshal shrugged and cocked his Colt. “You were tryin’ to escape.”
“That won’t hold up. The door’s locked.”
“I have the keys, genius.” He raised his Colt and leveled it. “One. Two.”
The marshal squeezed the trigger. The hammer clacked on an empty cylinder.
Billy grabbed at his chest and staggered backward. When the back of his legs hit the edge of the bunk, he sat down hard, his eyes wide, his hands out in front of him. “You’re crazy!”
The marshal examined the gun. “Dang. Misfire.” Then he extended it again and calmly cocked it. He took aim. “Three.” He tensed his finger on the trigger again.
Billy shrank back across the bunk, waving his hands frantically. He screeched, “No! Don’t shoot! He’ll be here on the next train! I don’t know when it comes! He’ll be here on the next train! That’s all I know!”
The marshal kept the Colt leveled and cocked. “Westbound or east?”
“I— I don’t know. Westbound I think. I don’t know. Please, just—”
The marshal lowered the hammer on the revolver and holstered it. “Aw, I was just jokin’. Now your good buddy Manny? He would’a shot your sorry ass. Think about that.” He turned and walked back to his desk to study the wanted posters.
None of them featured Billy. Or Cecil or even Villareal.
Why weren’t there posters on any of these men? Just the fact that they were riding with Pilsen meant there should be posters on them.
He shook his head. Maybe they hadn’t been with him that long.
Or maybe Pilsen was planning something new and wanted extra talent.
The door opened. “I heard you’ve taken up a new occupation as a target, Bob.”
The marshal looked up. “Oh, hi Doc.” He gestured toward his left shoulder with his chin. “One of ‘em hit me in the right arm. I think the bone stopped it though.” He grinned.
“And were you gonna come see me?”
“Yeah. I just got sidetracked. Tryin’ to figure out why there are no posters on these guys.”
The doctor nodded and rubbed his hand over his chin. He closed the door, then made his way toward the marshal’s desk. “Well, I imagine there will be. At least on the ones you didn’t shoot. Which one of ‘em got you?”
“The Faro dealer?”
“Yeah. That’s what I thought too, but I guess he was in it up to his eyeballs. I thought it was a little strange when he decided to hang around after I told him to leave. Said he never knew when someone might come in for a game.”
“Folks often wander into a saloon for a game of Faro while there’s shootin’ goin’ on, do they?”
“That’s what I thought. Guess I didn’t think it soon enough.”
“Yeah well, I brought everything with me.” He hefted his bag and set it on the desk. “Let me take a look at that. You wanna take off your shirt or would you rather I cut the sleeve off?”
“I’ll take it off.” He stood and began unbuttoning his shirt. When it was off, he draped it over the back of his chair and sat on the desk.
The doctor bent slightly and looked at the wound. “I can see it. It didn’t go in very far.” He straightened and looked at the marshal. “You want some whisky or you just wanna grit your teeth?”
The marshal grinned. “I’m on duty. Just do what you gotta do.”
“Well, grip the edge of the desk there. But if you pass out, you’re gonna wake up on the floor. I’m not big enough to catch you, and I’m smart enough to stay out of the way.”
A few minutes later, the doctor dropped the slug on the desk, then took some cloth strips from his bag. He had just begun bandaging the arm when the door swung open.
The marshal glanced up.
For a moment the space was filled with Cecil, and then he barged in. “Where’s my damn gun?”
“Oh, hi Cecil. What’s your last name, by the way?”
Cecil scowled. “None’a your damn business!”
The marshal shrugged. “Suit yourself. Cecil Noname it is.” He grinned. “So how’s your head?”
“Sore, you son of a bitch!”
The doctor shook his head as he finished bandaging the marshal’s arm. He glanced at Cecil. “Now that isn’t very nice.”
“Yeah? Well who the hell are you?”
The doctor looked at the marshal. “It’s gonna hurt a lot before it stops. Probably two or three days. Maybe a week. But you’ll be all right. If the pain gets too bad, come see me.”
“Thanks, Doc. I will.”
“And get someone to change that bandage once a day. You don’t need that getting infected.”
“Will do.” He stood and started putting his shirt back on.
The doctor closed his bag and picked it up, then made his way toward the door. He glanced up at Cecil. “Excuse me.”
“Like hell I will.”
The marshal said, “Move, Cecil.”
The big man stepped aside and the doctor left.
The marshal gestured toward the cells with his chin. “Now, right over there. You can have the cell next to Billy’s.”
“What? You ain’t fixin’ to lock me in no—”
The marshal pointed at him. “Shut up, Cecil. We both know you’re all mouth, and frankly, I’m tired of listenin’.” He pointed. “Now get in that damn cell. Or I can drag you into it.”
Cecil glared at him, but he started toward the cells. He pointed at the marshal. “You’re gonna pay for this. You’re gonna pay big.”
The marshal sat down and went back to the task at hand. “Yeah, I know.”
(Note: To be continued next week. Or you can buy the whole story at Amazon, Smashwords, or other ebook retailers. Thanks!)