Western Short Story
Abilene Stage
Darrell Sparkman


 The stagecoach tried to outrun the dusty whirlwind it generated as it careened along the road, two days from Abilene. Grizzled and wrinkled from age and years of throwing his tough old face into the wind, Frank Drummond shifted his cud of chewing tobacco—stretching his left cheek to impossible proportions as he eyed the figure standing in the road ahead. He started to spit an amber stream over his left shoulder, then abruptly changed his mind and aimed it into the soiled can at his feet. If he spit over the side it would blow back into the passengers and that about got him shot once.

Drummond turned to yell a warning at his shotgun guard, but Miguel was already alert to the figure waiting for them. The guard held his rifle casually, but the business end accurately tracked the stranger in the road as the stage ground to a stop.

The stage settled into the dust, creaking and moaning as the passengers shifted around inside. The eight-horse team stomped restlessly, shaking their harness as the flies caught up with them on the hot day. Both men riding on top of the stage watched warily as the man lowered his head, waiting for the wind to carry away the dust cloud. Slim hipped and wide of shoulder, the stranger held his forty-pound Texas saddle on one shoulder while his right hand held a new Henry repeating rifle. Drummond noticed the man’s typical cowhand dress was a little better in quality than most, the boots looked hand-tooled and solid black. A black gun belt held a Navy Colt in a tied-down holster and he could see the grips were worn smooth with use.

The old stage driver knew the signs and knew the look. The Kansas plains of 1870 were awash with castoff and battle scarred veterans of war—cattle wars and arguments over water and land rights just as deadly. Ranchers were building barbed wire kingdoms, jealously trying to hold huge amounts of rangeland, and men were dying in the process. Hired warriors were common occurrences along the Chisolm Trail and the word gunman, a term idolized by the newspapers and dime novels produced back East, was on everyone’s lips.

The dust swirled on past and the man’s grey eyes came up from under the brim of his hat. Drummond saw his face at the same time his eyes caught the glint of the star pinned on his shirt. He had to adjust his first impression—not by much, but enough to bring a smile to his face. “Jesus, Gawd. Matthew Bodine. Thought you were over in the Nation.”

***

Matt smiled and marveled at his good luck. He knew these folks. Some drivers, leery of holdups, would shoot first and sort it out later. “Been awhile, Frank.” He dumped his saddle on the ground and grinned at the two men on the box. “I could use a ride.”

“What happened to your horse? Injuns?” Drummond stood and turkey-necked all around. “Gopher hole. Half a day south of here.”

“Nice day for a walk.” The accented voice of Miguel Franco was soft and musical.

Matt glanced at the Mexican, noting the familiar way the man handled his weapon. “Not really.” He tossed his saddle into the boot at the back of the stage and walked around to one of the side doors. Stopping on the shady side, where he could see into the stage, he paused to look at the passengers. One by one, he met their eyes and made assessments—and opinions that would last until proven wrong.

Drummond came up from behind. “We’ll squeeze you in somewhere, Marshal.” “I can ride on top if there’s no room. I wouldn’t want to crowd anyone.”

“Nonsense,” one of the women inside replied, “we’ll make room.”

Matt glanced back into the stage and his eyes lingered on the woman. He thought he knew the voice, and her face confirmed it.

Drummond’s gruff voice interrupted his thoughts.

“We better get goin’ folks.” The old stage driver climbed back onto the coach. “There’s a rest stop about an hour ahead. Be some shade and water. Then we’ll push on to Baxter’s Crossing.”

As Matt leaned back in the seat and pulled his hat down over his eyes, he heard the old bull-whacker pop his twelve-foot blacksnake whip over the eight horses pulling the coach. Frank Drummond was a tough old man, and had experience at many things, at least to hear him tell it. But so far Matt didn’t see any indication that he was a stage driver. Not unless bouncing his passengers to death was a prerequisite. The rocking motion of the careening coach made sleep impossible and every surface, including passengers, was covered in a fine white dust.

Still, Matt surmised, it was better than walking. He just hoped his back would last until the night stop at Baxter Crossing.

“Mister Bodine?”

He focused his attention on the woman across from him. “Ma’am.”

“You’re a peace officer?”

Matt took his left hand and lifted the lapel of his vest. The silver star pinned to his shirt was engraved U. S. Marshal. It also revealed the butt of a second pistol, set for a cross-draw and never far from his hand.

A man sitting across from him leaned over to shake his hand. “I’ll introduce you around, Marshal. You’ve been talking to Mrs. Prescott.” He pointed to a man next to him. “This is G. W. Rourke—going to Abilene to buy cattle. My name’s Quinn. I sell dry-goods to mercantile stores.”

He held Quinn’s gaze a moment, debating whether to challenge the obvious slur to the woman who hadn’t been mentioned. She was sitting beside him and Quinn hadn’t even looked at her. Probably couldn’t see her around his long Puritan nose. Sighing, he decided not to push it.

He didn’t need to be told about Annie Holt. When he recognized her, a flood of memories came back to him. A small smile came to his lips as he glanced at her. A few more miles were showing since the last time he’d seen her, but she was still a beautiful woman. Somehow, she looked unaffected by the blistering heat and dust. He turned toward her. “How are you, Annie?”

She looked at him, startled for a moment, gratefulness seeping into her soft brown eyes.

“Tolerable,” she said dryly. “Just tolerable.”

“Who’s the Mex riding shotgun up top?”

“Couldn’t be better,” Quinn replied, not giving Annie a chance to answer. “It’s Miguel Franco. No one will buy trouble with him riding guard.”

He still looked at Annie, ignoring for the moment the man’s reply. She smiled softly and shrugged her shoulders, turning back to look out the other window.

Finally... “Heard of him.”

“What brings you here, marshal? Are you going to Abilene?” Mrs. Prescott seemed intent on grilling him.

He glanced at her, then at the ring on her hand. Her white-blond hair piled high in curls and ringlets, her dress buttoned tightly at the collar. Young and pretty, too young to be a widow and old enough to know better, she didn’t hide the sudden interest him.

A little close between the eyes. He had a horse like that once.

“Warrant. A man I want to see is supposed to be in Abilene.”

“You’re from the Indian Territory, Marshal?” Mrs. Prescott asked. “It’s not often one of the Judge’s men get over this far into Kansas.”

His gaze pinned the woman to her seat, annoyed at her questions. “You make a study of marshals, ma’am?”

Before Mrs. Prescott could reply, Annie interrupted. “Who’s your warrant for?”

“Texas Red Wyrick.”

“Jesus.” Annie’s voice was subdued.

Her gaze lingered on his face a moment and he watched her expression go from speculation to curiosity, and finally settle on sadness. With a slight shake of her head, she returned to looking at the scenery outside.

Complete silence permeated the coach. All had heard of Texas Red. Up with the trail herds from Texas, and all the bad ones seemed to be ‘up from Texas’, he was known as one of the fastest gunfighters around. Some called him a Sugar Gun, sweet and fast—saying he was faster than Earp, or Hickok. In Annie’s part of town, they called him a pig. He was as unscrupulous and profane as he was dirty. He took whatever he wanted and challenged anyone to defy him.

Finally, Rourke cleared his throat. “I hear he’s been cuttin’ quite a swath around Abilene. Heard he’s killed four men in the last month. I even heard he faced down Wild Bill himself.” Rourke was taking in the marshal with new and skeptical eyes. “Are you going to team up with the town sheriff to try and get him—maybe get together a posse?”

“Who is the sheriff?”

“It’s Tom Smith, Matt.” Annie didn’t turn from looking out the window.

“Bear River Tom?”

“Sounds like you know him.” Quinn interjected.

He wondered if Quinn would ever shut up as he answered tersely. “Nope. Just know of him. From what I’ve heard he won’t last. I figure on talking to him but I won’t be asking for volunteers.” He pinned Rourke with a steady look. “Mister, I wouldn’t be spreadin’ around that story about Texas Red. James never backed up for anybody and isn’t likely to.”

“Who?” Quinn’s voice was puzzled.

“James Butler Hickock. Wild Bill. From what I hear about Abilene, he may even be your next marshal. If he hears that story, he’s sure going to be wondering where it came from.”

“It’s just talk. No harm to it.” Rourke tried to shrug it off.

“Your funeral.”

“Whoa up there!” The voice of the stage driver penetrated the conversation in the coach. Looking out the open side of the coach, he could see a grove of trees ahead.

“We’ll rest the horses for a half hour, folks.” Drummond yelled at them from on top of the coach. “Better get out and stretch.”

***

The stage driver was busy watering the horses from a couple of buckets he filled from the creek, losing half the water as he sloshed and cursed his way back to the stage. He carefully watched how much he let each horse drink.

Quinn’s nasal voice could be heard addressing Rourke. “All them women should be run out of the country....” Drummond walked around the horses and interrupted. The old stage driver had covered a lot of ground in his time and not all of it easy, so he liked to avoid trouble whenever he could.

Walking up close to the men Drummond stared at Quinn until the man’s voice faded away. “Mr. Quinn, is this your first trip out West?” Drummond’s voice was patient.

“Why, yes it is.”

“Then, let me try and keep you from being killed.” He glanced at the cattle buyer. “I’m surprised at you too, Rourke. You’re a western man, and you know we don’t speak slighting of our womenfolk out here. We show them respect.”

Quinn laughed loudly. “Respect? For a....”

“For a what?” Matt came up on the other side of the men. “For a what, mister? Are you about to call someone a name?”

Quinn stuttered rapidly. “Well, just what everyone knows? I mean, that Holt woman works in a saloon, don’t she?”

Matt reached out casually with a big hand and slammed Quinn up against the coach. He watched it run through his eyes and his expression. Knowing the man was a coward, he just waited for what he knew would happen. Quinn knew this was the West—knew he should fight back and defend himself, but looking into Matt Bodine’s eyes something inside Quinn seemed to fold up and set down.

“Let me tell you what everyone knows about Annie Holt, Mr. Quinn. Her no account family dumped her out here on the prairie when she was just a little girl. She survived that, and made it on her own since then. Maybe not the way most folks would, but then most folks would have died. She did it all by herself, with no help from anyone.”

“A couple of years back,” he continued in a low voice, “cholera broke out on the Missouri - Kansas border, at a town called Mindenmines. Miners were dying like flies. People left that place in droves. But, two or three didn’t, Mr. Quinn. One of them that stayed was Annie Holt. She stayed and nursed about fifty of those miners back to health. She fed them and took care of them, changed their clothes and bedding, and risked her life for them. Now those miners think a lot of that girl, and their friends do too, so you’d best not talk down on her. You just never know who’s going to be listening. She’s good people, and don’t you ever forget it.” Matt stood staring at the man for a few more seconds. “Is that clear?”

***

A few minutes later, Matt was standing down by the creek when he heard a light step behind him.

Annie stopped beside him and stood looking out over the water. “I heard what you said, back there. I’m not sure you’re entirely right, but thanks anyway.”

He shrugged and smiled at her. “It’s all true, Annie. Folks are grateful. I’m grateful, and I think you’ll find that most people who count are on your side.”

She looked over to where Mrs. Prescott was talking to the cattle buyer. “Not everyone is.”

He turned and looked. Smiling, he said. “What do you know? She’s giving up on me already.” He turned his steady gaze on Annie. “I said the folks that count, not people like her. Why go back to Abilene, Annie? You’ve surely got some money set by. Even if you don’t, I know many a man who’ll give you a stake with no strings attached. Why don’t you just walk away? Find some cowpoke and make him happy the rest of your life.”

“You think I could?” Annie’s voice was skeptical. “Just that easy? I’ve thought about it, but I’m always afraid to try.” She glanced up at him. “Anyway, who’d want a retired dance-hall floozy?”

He was about to answer when Miguel called from the top of the coach. “Marshal, we got company.”

Matt turned to see who was coming and felt a cold knot start in his stomach. Easterners were always asking how to tell the difference between a wild Indian and a tame one. At that time back East, there were people who hadn’t seen anything wild, much less an Indian. They did their jobs during the day, then at night went to music concerts, strolled along the boardwalks and tipped their hats to the constable on the corner.

Wild Indians? Some people would say there is no difference. Those people never saw the Kiowa, or Sioux, or Cheyenne in his own domain. The old timers would say you feel the difference in your gut. It’s the same feeling you get when you’re pushing through thick brush and come face to face with a mountain cougar or prairie rattler. Matt had that feeling now—that cold knot in his belly, knowing that what he would say and do in the next few minutes could mean life or death for all of them.

Sitting on their horses about fifty yards out into the prairie were three Kiowa. Straddling their ponies like the princes of the plains that they were, they sat loose jointed and relaxed—and painted for war. Their faces were streaked with red and yellow, and the horses were painted with circles and dots. They decorated the horse’s manes with bits of bone, feathers, and medicine bags. Two of the Indians had rifles, and the one in front carried a lance adorned with fresh scalps and eagle feathers. These men were neither downtrodden, nor apt to beg. This was their land, and they would control every inch of it or die trying.

As the rest of the passengers converged on the stage, Matt told them. “No shooting, unless they start it, but I want every gun we have in plain sight. Even the women should have a gun. We’re in a bad spot here.” He looked curiously at the trio of Indians. Since they hadn’t laid an ambush and simply killed them all, he knew they wanted something. All he had to do was find out what and keep their hair in the process.

As the three Indians rode closer, he stepped out to meet them. They drew up in front of him and he got his first good look at the leader. The knot in his stomach got bigger. He didn’t know if it was good luck, or bad, that he knew him. Wild Pony hadn’t agreed to any treaties and refused to be carted off to a reservation. A few years ago, he’d left a trail of bodies and burned ranches from Texas to the Missouri river.

In the fleeting moments before he spoke, Matt remembered the first time he’d met with Wild Pony. It was in the panhandle country of Texas, and he was forted up in a buffalo wallow with four other cowhands. They’d been busting strays out of the thickets when they were jumped by a band of Kiowa. The cowhands were young, and so were the bucks. The first volley of gunfire had netted nothing for either side. Had the young Kiowa been with older warriors, it would have been a lot different.

The wranglers made it to the natural fortress of a buffalo wallow, all carrying brand new Henry repeaters and saddlebags full of ammunition. The Kiowa were stubborn. To return home without scalps would be a disgrace but, so were the cowhands.

The battle lasted all day, with a last-ditch charge by the Kiowa with the sun at their backs. After the dust and gun smoke settled, two men were left standing. Wild Pony came walking out of the dusty sunset carrying a slain warrior over his shoulder. Matt rose up from the buffalo wallow, half dazed from a bullet graze along his scalp. Both men were startled to see each other, and simply stared—too tired to do anything else. Wild Pony finally broke the silence.

“It is a battle to be remembered. Many brave men died today. It is enough.”

Later, they’d each helped bury the dead. The Kiowa on raised platforms, facing the rising sun—the cowboys as deep in the ground as the hard-packed earth would allow.

Matt went to sleep from exhaustion. When he woke the next morning, the Kiowa was gone. His weapons were next to his ground sheet. Wild Pony could easily have taken the weapons and killed him while he slept, but he hadn’t. Afterward, they’d crossed paths a few times, but never fought again.

***

Matt raised his left hand, palm out. His right was resting on his pistol, a fact not missed by the trio of Indians. “Wild Pony is a long way from his lodge. It is good that you come to this shade and water as friends. You are welcome here.” The Kiowa looked mildly surprised as Matt addressed them in their own language.

The Kiowa chief looked stonily at him a moment, then replied in English. “The Kiowa will hunt where he wishes. If my lodge is here, then this is my home.” A small glint of humor came to the warrior’s eye. “The Mar-shal is also far from his home. What does he do on Kiowa land?”

Matt pointed west. “In the town where cattle are sold is a man I must see. He is wanted by the law and must be punished.”

“White man’s law?” Wild Pony’s voice was scornful.

He shrugged his shoulders. “Wild Pony is painted for war. I see in the distance his men are ready to take up the knife.” At this statement, the passengers whirled to look at the hills behind them. “Why is Wild Pony ready to break the treaty his brothers have agreed to?”

The Kiowa spoke angrily. “The Cherokee and the Kansa are old women who hide their faces when we come. They sit on their blankets and wait for the White Father to feed them and give them clothes. Our young warriors want to join forces with the Dog Soldiers of the Cheyenne. Together they hope to keep the whites from our land.”

“Then why does the Kiowa wish to speak with me?”

“When I saw you were here, I stayed the hands of my warriors. They have not seen the numbers of the white man, as I have. They think if they kill the whites that are on our land, no more will come. They are foolish, but they are young and will be mighty in battle before they die.” The Kiowa spat onto the ground. “Soldiers came to our village while we were on a hunt. They burned our homes and took some of our women away. We found the women later. Dead. The soldiers who did this ran away to hide in their fort. The Kiowa is patient. We will wait until they come out. Then we will kill them.”

Matt’s anger seethed. Of all the idiot things to do. After a moment, he spoke to the Indian. “Wild Pony knows me. We have fought against each other in battle. You know my word is true. I have never lied to you.”

“Wild Pony knows this.”

“Then hear me. What Wild Pony believes in his heart is true. The whites will keep coming. They hunger for land so they can grow their crops and raise cattle and horses. These are the ones who will defeat the Kiowa. For every one you kill, two will take his place.

“The soldiers have done a bad thing.” Matt continued. “But, if you kill the soldiers it will only make more trouble for you and your people. Your act of revenge would be your death song. It is possible this bad thing was done to make you angry—to make you do something foolish so the government can take away your lands again and send the soldiers against you. Hear me, Wild Pony. Take your warriors and go home. Move your village farther away toward the setting sun, so you will be hard to find. I will take care of the soldiers.”

“White man’s law will not punish them.”

“I cannot speak for all places, or all people. But here, I am the white man’s law. There are no courts here. You have spoken to me. It is enough. If you give me time, I will punish them.”

Wild Pony turned and pointed toward his men. “Many of my braves want to take your hair. They are angry and seek revenge. I am their chief and have stopped them, for now. I will bring your words to them.” The Kiowa spoke directly to Matt again. “You know I am only the war chief. They do not have to listen to me. Some among them may come against you and test your strength.”

“It is the way among warriors. It is their right to come and taste our bullets and blades.” Matt spoke without taking his eyes away from the chief. “Miguel? I have heard you are very good with that rifle. How far away would you say that herd of pronghorns is from here? Six, seven hundred yards?”

Miguel, too, had noticed the curious antelope. “Nearer nine hundred.”

“How about you drop one.” Matt drawled as his eyes held those of Wild Pony.

Miguel slowly lifted his rifle, not wanting the Kiowa to mistake his intention. The crack of the rifle startled the horses, and the two Indians with the Kiowa chief quickly turned to see. The herd of pronghorn ran, leaving one kicking on the ground. Wild Pony’s eyes never wavered.

“Take the meat to your lodges and feed your women and children.” Matt told him. “Tell your warriors the deaths of their people will be avenged. When I have done this, I will come to your village to share the pipe and talk with the medicine drums.”

The Kiowa chief sat his horse for a long minute. His thoughts traced by fleeting expressions on his face. Finally, nodding his head at Matt, Wild Pony whirled his horse and rode away.

***

The passengers were loaded and the coach was again bouncing down the road toward the night stop at Baxter’s Crossing. Matt Crane had stayed on top of the coach, keeping a watchful eye toward the hills.

G. W. Rourke broke the silence inside the coach. “That marshal is quite a talker. You seem to know him, Miss Holt? Can he fight as well as he talks?”

Annie Holt looked across at the cattle buyer. “Don’t ever try him, Mr. Rourke. I’ve been around a lot of places, and seen a lot of good men. Some who claimed to be gunmen, although the good ones don’t strut it around. I’ve never seen anyone like Matt Bodine.”

“You sound as if you admire the man.” Mrs. Prescott’s voice carried scornfully across the coach. “He’s nothing more than a hired killer himself.”

“Mrs. Prescott, you’re new to the West. You’ll learn that things are different out here. Generally, men and women can be just as good or bad as they want to be. The good people try to build something for the future, and the bad one’s? Well, there’s nothing to stand in their way, except men like Matt Bodine. You always hear about Wild Bill, or the Earp brothers, Goodnight and Masterson. But, for every one of the famous gunfighters you hear about there are more that you never hear of—men who don’t seek a reputation and just do their jobs. Matt wasn’t given the marshal’s job because of his knowledge of the law, Mrs. Prescott. He was given the job because he’s fast and tough. If you’re looking to find a constable on every street corner, like it is back East, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.”

“The civilized way would be to talk these matters out, Miss Holt. Surely, even the savages can be reasoned with.”

“Of course they can.” Annie tried to keep the contempt from her voice. “But, only from a position of strength. You may have noticed the marshal kept his hand on his gun all the time he was talking to the Kiowa. That was his message to them, like having Miguel shoot the antelope. The Kiowa are the greatest hunters on these plains, Mrs. Prescott. Do you think we had to supply them with meat? The marshal wanted them to know how far away we could start killing them, before they got in range with their weapons.”

“If he’s so good with a gun, I’m surprised he bothered to talk his way out of this at all.” Annie Holt looked at her, astonished. “Mrs. Prescott, only a fool starts trouble with Indians.”

***

An oppressive late-afternoon heat permeated even the darkest shade when the coach pulled into Baxter’s Crossing. Dust hung in small clouds around the buildings and corrals—shot through with golden streaks from the low hanging sun, with no breeze to take the dust away. A young boy ran out of the barn and immediately began unhooking the horses, leading them first to water, then to the corral for a rubdown.

Matt waited until everyone left the coach. Stepping down into the dusty lot, he took off his hat and slapped at his pants and shirt to try to rid his clothes of the dust. He thought the passengers had all gone inside, until he heard a quiet chuckle behind him.

“Won’t do you much good,” Annie said. “You’re just making more dust.”

He grinned at her. “I’d just jump in the creek, but all this dust would turn to mud and I’d sink like a stone.”

“More likely you’d just dry up all the water.”

He leaned against the stage, knowing she hadn’t come to him for idle chatter.

She skirted around something that was bothering her until it finally came out. “I know Texas Red. We were together some before I left Abilene. I wanted you to know that so there are no misunderstandings.”

“You’re his girl?”

She flinched and then shook her head. “He might think so.”

He sighed, watching her closely. “That doesn’t answer the question.”

“No. I’m not his girl. Never was, really.” Her chin came up and she looked at him steadily. “But, we were together. I stayed too long with him.” Her face turned sad as she reflected inward a moment. “He uses people, Matt. He hurts them, and then he laughs at them. And after he’s through, he discards them.”

“I’ve heard that.” Matt was puzzled. “So what’s the message? Why are you telling me this?”

She shuddered and crossed her arms under her breasts. “He knows you’re coming—not you in particular, but someone. I don’t know how, but he does. He’s waiting for you and he won’t be alone. He’ll have help.”

Matt felt tired to the bone. “Yeah, seems like they always do.”

Reaching out, she touched his arm. “Then don’t go. Just let him be, Matt. Let him stew in his own juices. Someday he’ll come to the Territory. You can get him then.”

“Trying to protect him?” Matt felt anger bubbling up, and didn’t really understand why—or maybe he did.

Annie turned away from him and then turned back, tears welling in her eyes. “I’ve seen him fight. He’s all spring steel and leather. I’ve never seen anything so fast. It’s like he keeps all his energy bottled up inside, then it just busts loose and explodes.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Then keep this in mind, Matt Bodine. How long have you been doing this? Ten years? Longer? How many bullets have you taken? More than the three that I know of? I know you’re a good gambler. Think of the odds. When’s it going to happen? How long before the day comes that you will be a shade too slow, or you slip on a rock just as you draw, or some other stupid thing? You've been at this too long. The odds are getting bad.” She stood looking at him, shaking her head. “And, you think I should start a new life?”

He just stared at her. Finally.... “I don’t know, Annie. Maybe I just don’t worry about it. Besides, if I go down, do you know how much difference it will make? Like pulling your finger out of the water and trying to see the hole you left.”

She watched him walk away, knowing a deep frustration and sudden longing. She didn’t want him to die. Most people knew she worked in saloons. He didn’t look down his nose at her, like some other people. But, she wasn’t one of the girls made available to everyone for a price—and, most didn’t know that. She gambled with the men, cajoled them, and made them buy drinks from the house — sometimes at double the price. But, in her way, she had her pride too. Her jaw tightened with resolution. He was too good a man to die at the hands of Texas Red Wyrick.

*****

The noonday sun was boiling, and the world had turned one click into the afternoon. Marshal Matt Bodine was forking a chair in front of the L. Sammis Mercantile, hoping to stay on for the ride in the only shade offered on the main street of Abilene. Leaning back on his cane-bottomed mount, he surveyed the bustling street of the busiest cattle town in the West. Just this morning, he’d heard someone say the Kansas Pacific railroad had packed over a hundred twenty-thousand head of cattle out of here in one year. That was a lot of beef.

His eyes were on constant alert as he absent-mindedly rubbed the back of his neck. He’d sprung for a shave and haircut, and paid his buck and two-bits, but now his neck itched. That barber should have sharpened his razor a little more.

When he arrived in town he’d cleaned his guns, then got a good night’s sleep. Early this morning he checked in with Bear River Tom, and showed him his warrant for Texas Red Wyrick.

“No business of mine.” The town sheriff commented. “You want him, you can have him.”

It was well past noon when he saw Texas Red come out of a saloon up the street, step precisely to the center of the dusty street, do a left-flank, and begin walking toward him. Texas Red was a tall man, well set up and wide through the shoulders, his petulant face partly hidden in the shadow of the high-peaked Texas hat pulled low on his forehead. Walking slowly toward Matt, his Spanish spurs punctuating each step, he was a man who knew everyone was watching, and liked it—preened for it. Every step he took was a practiced move to look good to the crowd.

Matt shook his head, sighing to himself. It looked like Texas Red had been reading too many dime novels about gunfights.

Have it your way.

Levering himself out of the chair, he slipped the thong off his colt, and stepped out in the street. He wasn’t worried about Texas Red. At least, not yet. Texas Red would do his talking first and shooting later.

His eyes searched the crowd, shifting to the windows in the buildings lining the street. He didn’t like it. There were too many people, all wanting to see who got killed—eager to see the blood. Mixed in the crowd would be Texas Red’s hole card... or cards. How many men would he have?

“It doesn’t have to be this way, Red.” His voice carried easily along the street. “You can come peaceable, and we’ll go see the judge.”

“The Hanging Judge?” Red Wyrick laughed. “Not likely. Won’t be any lawman taking me in, least of all you. You never saw the day. Man, I’ve watched the best of them! Hardin, Hickok—hell, I’m faster than any of them. And, if you were any good, I’d have heard of you.” The man looked at him scornfully. “I just ain’t never heard of you, lawman.”

“Then I guess it’s time.”

“You called it.” Red’s hand streaked for his gun, the same malicious smile on his face that he wore all the time.

In the still noon air—in the quiet of a hundred indrawn breaths, a sibilant whisper of gun metal clearing hard leather, and Matt’s colt fired one time. Before the echo of the shot started down the street, he whirled at sudden movement to his left. An unkempt, bearded man had his pistol half out of its holster... and stared into the bore of Matt’s colt. Slowly, the man took out the pistol, dropped it to the boardwalk, and raised his hands. As Matt slowly started to relax, he was startled to hear a shot behind him.

Whirling in desperation, he saw a man stagger from the crowd. Taking two steps, the man stretched full length into the dust. Behind him, he saw Annie calmly putting a small revolver back into her purse. Their eyes met for a moment across the open space of the street, and then she turned and walked away.

Frank Drummond stood in the door of the saloon, sipping his beer. Miguel disgustedly dug into his pocket for a silver dollar and handed it to Drummond. The old stage-driver laughed. “Miguel, I love to take your money.”

Miguel laughed ruefully. “Between you, and staking that girl to a couple of horses, I don’t have any money left. Say, didn’t I see her talking to you, too?”

Drummond cursed softly, and then grinned. “That gal hit me up for a loan, too. Guess she was bettin’ on the same man as me.”

The street was suddenly full of people, all trying to crowd around the marshal and shake his hand. Matt shouldered them off and walked toward Texas Red. The man Annie shot lay in a tangled heap—half on the boardwalk. It was obvious he’d never bother anyone else. Red Wyrick was lying on his face, the ground around his mouth painted red. He didn’t have to look, knowing where he placed the bullet. Giving Texas Red’s body only a cursory glance, and continuing down the street toward the stable, he saw two horses being led out.

As he came up to her, Annie shrugged and smiled. “I thought you’d need a horse to go with your saddle.”

“I count two horses.”

“You said a girl could start over. Two could try that, Matt.” Her soft brown eyes were brimful of unshed tears, waiting for an answer.

He didn’t hesitate. “Why, Annie, I think you’re right.”

“What about Wild Pony?”

“I made a promise. I’d not go back on that.”

“No, you wouldn’t. And, I wouldn’t expect you to.”

He gently raised her chin with his hand, and then kissed her for a long time. When they finally broke apart, Mrs. Prescott was standing there watching them.

“Well, I never!” She said, as she flounced away.

Matt tipped his hat at her. “No, ma’am. Likely not.”


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