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New American Western
Saddlebag Dispatches




Western Short Story
Gunfight at Hell's End
B.S. Dunn


Western Short Story

He came in from the scorching alkali flats late in the afternoon. At first glance, the speck in the distance could have been mistaken for a mirage amid the shimmering heat haze, but as the horse and rider drew nearer it became obvious that it was not.

The immediate thoughts of the two old-timers who sat out the front of the Hell's End saloon was “outlaw”.

Why else would a man on a played out horse enter town from that direction? The only thing out there was miles and miles of nothing. That made him either stupid or outlaw and their bet was on the latter.

The big black staggered into town on wobbly legs. It was covered head to tail in alkali dust, most of which had turned to mud from the sweat and foam produced by such an arduous trek. The rider was covered in much the same manner.

The man was dressed in black. Pants, shirt, low-crowned hat, even his neckerchief, but after coming off the flats, the layer of dust had transformed each item of clothing into a dull and murky grey.

The sturdy horse reached the saloon where the two old timers lounged lazily before it emitted a low shuddering moan and slowly sank to the ground.

The rider on its back seemed to have all the time in the world as he casually reached for the .45-.75 caliber Winchester in the saddle boot.

He stepped from the stirrups then watched the black roll onto its side, give its final pained moan then died.

The stranger turned and looked across at the two men sitting in their chairs.

Is there any place around here I can get another horse?” he asked casually.

“You might try Elmer down at the livery,” one of them answered without taking his eyes from the dead horse.

“But he's closed up at the moment,” put in the other. “Had to go out of town to see about somethin'. Said he'll be back tomorrow.”

The stranger nodded. “Guess I'll have to wait then.”

“Seems like.”

There was a brief period of uncertain silence before the stranger walked across to the water trough outside the Hell's End saloon.

He looked up at the sign and muttered, “Seems mighty appropriate name for a town after comin' in from the alkali flats.”

“What was that stranger?” an old timer asked.

The man ignored the question and stepped up to the trough. He leaned the rifle against it then unbuckled the gun belt he wore. Housed in its holster was a single action Colt .45 which he dropped to the ground. Finally, he removed his low-crowned hat and tossed it beside the gun belt.

One of the old timers frowned. “Say, what are you up to stranger?”

The man looked over at them and smiled. For the first time, without his hat, they could see the thick coat of dust on his unshaven face.

“Well, if it is all right with you, I'm goin' to take me a bath.”

Without waiting for them to answer, the stranger took off his dust-coated leather boots and climbed into the trough, clothes and all.

Once he'd settled in, he drew a deep breath then slipped beneath the water. He resurfaced after a brief sojourn and spat out a mouthful of water. He was now dust free.

The stranger climbed back out.

“There, that's better,” he said sounding satisfied.

He turned towards the two men in time to see their expressions change from amusement to one of astonishment.

“My lord,” one of them whispered hoarsely.

“I know you,” the other blurted out. “You're Josh Ford.”

Ford nodded and reached into his top breast pocket and took out a shiny, nickel-plated badge.

“I am,” he acknowledged.

Josh Ford, United States Marshal. A man to look up to and one to be feared.

Ford was thirty-one and stood six-feet-one. He had black hair, blue eyes and his face was tanned a nut-brown colour. He was solidly built and moved with a casual ease.

Beneath his wet shirt, his body bore the scars of a tough life on the frontier. Knife wounds, bullet scars, even a couple of old arrow wounds.

“Now that you know me, how about you tell me your names.”

The old timer on the left was the first to find his voice.

“I'm Hank,” he told Ford and motioned to his friend. “This is Clem.”

“Right pleased to meet you,” Ford smiled. He looked about and frowned. “Where is everybody?”

“What's left of them are at the funeral,” Hank answered.

“Yeah, our Mayor died,” Clem added.

“So why ain't you two there?”

Both of them shrugged. “Didn't like him.”

Can't argue with that Ford decided.

Hank cleared his throat and picked up the courage to ask the question that had been bugging them both.

“Why is it you're comin' in off the flats Marshal? There ain't nothin' out there except heat and dust. How else do you think Hell's End got its name?”

Ford nodded his understanding. “Let's say it seemed like the thing to do at the time.”

He paused and looked at the carcase of his horse. “Now I ain't so sure.”

“Are you runnin' from somethin'?” Clem asked.

“You could say that,” Ford allowed. “I had me a disagreement with a feller in Hadley and his brother kind of took exception to it.”

Hadley was a small town sixty miles the other side of the merciless flats.

“Who was the feller?” asked a new voice.

Ford looked up at the man standing just inside the saloon's bat-wing doors.

“Craig Black,” Ford informed him.

“Harvey Black's brother?”

“Yeah.”

The two old timers started. Everyone had heard of Harvey Black. He was a notorious badman who rode with a gang of cutthroats. Killers, every man jack of them.

The man stepped out onto the boardwalk. He was mid forties, built solid and stood approximately six-feet-two tall. His hair and eyes were dark brown and his face was weathered from years in the sun.

The clothes he wore consisted of dark jeans, a blue shirt and a black broad-brimmed hat.

About his hips, he wore a double gun-rig that housed twin Remingtons.

“Howdy Laramie,” Ford said.

The gunfighter nodded back. “Been a while, Josh.”

“Sure has,” Ford agreed. “I hear tell you've been busy.”

“A little.”

“You still ride that old crowbait of yours?” Ford asked, referring to Bo, Laramie's big chocolate coloured appaloosa.

Laramie's face remained passive.

“He's in a might better shape than your bronc at the minute,” the gunfighter pointed out.

Ford glanced once more at his horse.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “And you know what? I actually liked that one.”

“Come on in and have a drink,” Laramie invited him and cast a thumb over his shoulder. “I got me a bottle waitin'.”

“Don't mind if I do,” Ford accepted. “I might be a bit damp, though.”

He pulled on his boots and hooked his gun belt over his shoulder. He scooped up the Winchester and hat and headed towards the steps.

He paused and frowned.

“What's the matter?” Laramie asked.

“What'll I do about the horse?”

Laramie shrugged. He and Ford turned their gazes to Hank and Clem.

Hank responded first. “Leave him there,” he shrugged hunched shoulders. “He ain't goin' anywhere.”

Gunfighter and marshal shook their heads and disappeared inside.

Hank dug his elbow into his friend's ribs. “I told you didn't I?”

“Told me what?” asked Clem.

“That other feller.”

“What about him?”

“He's that gunfighter, Laramie Davis.”

#

“Are they still chasin' you?” Laramie asked.

Ford tossed back his third shot of whiskey and placed the glass back on the scarred tabletop.

“As far as I know,” Ford guessed. “You know Harvey. He ain't likely to stop.”

“Yeah,” Laramie agreed. “He still ridin' with eleven other hardcases?”

Ford shook his head. “Nope. Along with him, they number ten. When I shot his brother I also ventilated Mush Potter. They was together in Hadley. I saw 'em both and braced 'em. I guess they were casin' the bank for Harvey. Once word got out I'd killed his brother, he come ridin' in hell for leather. The alkali flats were the only way out.”

Laramie understood. He'd been there before. You do what you have to do to survive.

The silence in the room was almost deafening. Apart from them, the rotund barkeep was the only other person there.

For such a small, dead-end town, the saloon was rather large. The main bar room was as wide as it was long. The hardwood bar stretched across two-thirds of the room before turning at right angles and terminating at the back wall.

From the ceiling hung a chandelier which threw little illumination, while wall lamps lit up patches of the striped wallpaper. A long staircase led up to a sizeable landing that had hallways running left and right. Each had five rooms on either side.

“What do you plan on doin?” Laramie asked.

Ford was about to answer when Hank burst in through the bat-wings.

“Marshal,” he said urgently, “I think you might want to take a look at this.”

Both Ford and Laramie stood up and walked to the doors. As Ford went he buckled on his six-gun. Once they were out on the boardwalk, Hank said nothing but pointed out across the alkali flats.

A large plume of dust billowed up from the dry wasteland obscuring the clarity of the azure sky.

“I guess we're about to find out,” Ford said answering Laramie's question.

“I guess we are,” the gunfighter agreed.

Ford pulled his six-gun and checked his loads. Laramie did the same for his Remingtons while the marshal checked the Winchester.

Laramie disappeared inside the saloon. He walked over to the bar and asked the barkeep, “Have you got a coach gun behind there?”

“Sure,” the man replied.

“Give it over and get the hell out of here,” Laramie ordered. “Trouble's comin'.”

The barkeep hurriedly handed it over along with a handful of shells and disappeared out the back.

When Laramie stepped out onto the boardwalk, the dust cloud had doubled in size.

“This is your show,” Laramie commented. “How do you want to play it?”

“This ain't your fight, Laramie.”

“How?”

“We'll give 'em a chance to surrender,” Ford said succinctly.

“And when that don't work?”

“You, my friend are my ace-in-the-hole,” Ford told him. “Stay out of sight. They're only expectin' it to be me.”

Laramie nodded, “Fair enough. Let's get it done.”

Ford turned to Hank and Clem. “You got a sheriff in this town?”

“Sure,” said Hank.

“You'd best get him then,” Ford told them.

“Can't,” said Clem. “He ain't in town.”

The marshal wasn't surprised in the least at the news. “Figures. All right then go and hide some place until this is over. I'd hate for you to get caught in the crossfire.”

The two old timers didn't require further urging and promptly disappeared.

#

At the base of the huge dust cloud, ten men rode with purpose. Beneath them foam-flecked, dust-covered horses laboured hard.

Out front on a mean-tempered blue roan stallion was a bear of a man with a bushy, black beard and small, mean eyes.

Harvey Black put spur to his labouring horse once more, trying to wring out the last vestiges of speed.

Behind him rode his gang. Nine men, all killers. They went by names such as Cody, Mike, One-Eyed Bob, Kramer, Pete, Miller, Rio, Grady and Lon.

Their horses in identical condition to the one Black rode. Almost dead from being ridden into the ground across the parched alkali flats.

Where Harvey went, they followed and at this point in time, Harvey Black had hate in his heart and murder in his eye. Nothing was going to stop him from killing United States Marshal Josh Ford.

Ahead of them, the false-fronted buildings of Hell's End grew larger. They seemed to sprout from the flat expanse of ground like a long-stalked length of prairie grass.

It wouldn't be long now. The outlaw bunch would get fresh mounts and continue after Ford. And once they caught him, he'd wish they'd have killed him right off.

#

Josh Ford stood in the middle of Hell's End's main street waiting for the outlaw's arrival. His Colt was still holstered while his Winchester sat with its butt plate on his hip.

He could make out the riders plainly now as the drove their horses on relentlessly.

As they thundered into town, Ford remained unmoved; a sentinel against the oncoming horde with the afternoon sun slowly sinking at his back.

The outlaws grew closer, without bothering to check their pace.

Ford swung the Winchester down level and thumbed back the hammer.

Still they came on. Their intent he assumed was to ride him down.

Casually, Ford squeezed the trigger and the sound of the shot cracked loudly above the thunder of hooves.

The outlaw who rode a bay horse to the left of Harvey Black found himself atop a dead mount.

As Ford worked the lever of the Winchester to jack another round into the breech, the horse went down on its nose.

The outlaw, Miller, pitched forward over the dead horse's head and landed with a sickening thud in the street's powdery dust.

Amid shouts and cussing, the other outlaws hauled back on the reins of their mounts and brought them to a sliding halt where they milled about, snorting and stomping.

Black looked down at Miller. The outlaw was obviously dead, his head bent at an unnatural angle.

The outlaw leader's cold, hard gaze settled on Ford.

“That's another of my men you've killed you son of a bitch,” Black rasped, his throat dry from the alkali dust.

Ford shrugged. “Makes no never mind to me. It ain't like they never deserved it.”

“You killed my brother,” Black added.

“And I'll kill you too if you don't get down off that there horse and unbuckle that gun belt of yours.”

Black laughed harshly. “What? You're just one man. What are you goin' to do against ten of us?”

The clunk of boots on the boardwalk reached out across the street and without looking around Ford said, “There's two of us.”

Black switched his gaze to the left and saw Laramie standing there with the cut-off express gun.

“Well I'll be,” the outlaw said shaking his head. “Laramie Davis, as I live and breathe. The Legend himself.”

“Howdy Harvey,” Laramie greeted him. “Listen to the marshal. If you keep ridin' down this trail you're apt to wind up dead.”

“Two against ten,” he snapped.

“Yeah, I think you're right,” Laramie allowed. “We don't have a chance in a stand-up fight against you fellers but I believe there's only nine now.”

“Damn right you ain't, even one man down,” Black asserted.

“Yep, no chance in a stand-up fight whatsoever,” Laramie repeated. “What say you, Josh?”

There was a look of satisfaction on Harvey Black's face that grated against the marshal.

“Nope. Not a chance in hell,” Ford agreed and pulled the trigger on the Winchester.

The .45-.75 calibre slug hit Black full in the chest and knocked him back out of the saddle. A bright scarlet spray spattered the man beside him.

Laramie cut loose with the express gun and the effect of the buckshot on the close-knit group was devastating. Small lead balls cut a swathe through the outlaws and put three of them down. Cody, Rio and Grady all tumbled from their saddles. The first two were clean shot while Grady was hit in the lungs and middle and was still alive and writhed in pain on the ground.

Ford worked the lever of the Winchester and lay down a hail of lead which took down the outlaw called One-Eyed Bob, hit in the chest and dead before he touched the ground.

Laramie tossed the shotgun aside and drew his Remingtons in a smooth, fluid motion. He fired methodically, trying to pick his targets.

The remaining outlaws had recovered from the initial shock of it all and were now starting to return fire.

The outlaw called Pete, an older man from Kansas cut loose with his Colt Lightning at Laramie. His first bullet missed and smashed the window of the barbershop behind the gunfighter. The next bullet was closer and ripped a hole in his sleeve as it passed.

Laramie fired back but in that instant the buckskin the outlaw was on reared up and its brain bore the brunt of the slug instead of Pete.

The horse went down and spilled the rider into the dust. Pete struggled to his knees and tried to draw a bead on Laramie but the gunfighter was way ahead of him. Laramie's next bullet smashed into Pete's head and blew a large hole out the back of it.

Ford felt the harsh burn of a slug across his ribs and saw Mike lined up to take another shot. Instantly the marshal dropped the Winchester and rolled left. The bullet from the outlaw's gun dug into the ground where he'd been moments before.

Ford palmed up his Colt and fired two shots. One punched into the outlaw's middle while the other blew a hole in his throat, spaying a fine mist of blood into the air.

Only Kramer and Lon were left. Almost instantly they realised they'd bitten off more than they could chew.

Without further hesitation, the blond headed Kramer dropped his six-gun and threw up his hands.

“Don't shoot!” he cried. “I give up. I don't want to die.”

Lon, on the other hand, threw his weapon away and raked his mount savagely with large rowelled spurs. The horse lunged forward and only took a few yards to gather itself and settle into full stride.

Ford dived out of the way as the startled animal rushed past him. He came up and sighted his Colt on the fleeing outlaw's back and squeezed the trigger.

Lon threw up his arms as the bullet struck him squarely in the centre of his back. He cried out in pain and fell from the mount into the alkali-covered street.

Ford turned to meet the next threat but none came. Instead, a scene of carnage stood before him. Bodies of wounded and dead men lay in the street. Horses nervously milled about, the scent of fresh blood putting them on edge. Kramer still sat with his hands held high.

Grady was still alive though his cries of pain were nothing more than low moans.

Laramie stepped down from the boardwalk and joined Ford out in the street.

“I guess we got lucky,” the gunfighter surmised.

Ford let down the hammer on his Colt. “I think you'd be right.”

Both men reloaded their sidearms and walked forward until they stood over the motionless form of Harvey Black. He lay there with his sightless eyes wide open and a large red stain on his shirt where the Winchester's bullet had entered.

Townsfolk started to appear, the sound of the gunfire had drawn their attention. Like wraiths, Hank and Clem reappeared.

“Dang,” Hank blurted out excitedly. “That sure was some wild shootin'.”

Laramie and Ford spotted a man hurrying along the street with his six-gun drawn.

“What the hell is goin' on here?” he called out as he got closer, his face an angry red.

“Who are you?” Ford asked

“I'm Deputy Sheriff Sampson,” he shot back.

Ford and Laramie turned steely gazes to the two old timers.

Hank shrugged innocently. “You never asked.”

#

Ford tightened the girth strap and cursed as the blue roan blew out his belly once more.

“Having problems?” Laramie asked with a wry smile.

Ford looked up at the gunfighter as he sat easily on the big appaloosa. Bo took one look at the roan and snorted.

The mean tempered roan lashed out with his left rear hoof. It was a token gesture as Bo was well out of reach.

“Nothin' I can't handle,” Ford said, giving the horse a savage look. The damned thing had already bitten him on the back of the shoulder. “Even if I have to use a bullet.”

The roan snorted and moved his head around to have another nip at the marshal.

“I told you to take one of them other horse,” Laramie reminded him.

“I like this one.”

“Suit yourself, your funeral,” Laramie said. “Where you headed?”

“Wherever the bad guys are. How about you?”

“I'm layin' … tryin' to lay low. Had me some trouble up in Canada that led back to Kansas.”

Ford nodded. He'd heard about it through his travels. He also had heard where the trail led. “Watch your back Laramie. Clay Nash is a real dangerous man.”

Laramie nodded nonchalantly and waved his arm in an offhand gesture. “Take care, Josh. I'll be seein' you.”

Laramie eased Bo around behind the roan, giving it a wide berth. Ford watched him go and reiterated his warning, “Watch your back, Laramie. Watch your back.”