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Western Short Story
Long Sam Borrows A Badge
Lee Bond

Western Short Story

The Rio Grande was lower than “Long Sam” Littlejohn had seen it in months, yet the man out there in the sluggish current was drowning. A quarter-moon turned the surface of the river to dappled silver, showing the head and shoulders of the man who threshed the water. The current was pushing him downstream from this Tornillio ford, toward deeper water where the river made a tight bend around tall banks. That man was drowning—or putting on a mighty good show calculated to make somebody think he was drowning.

That last thought held Long Sam Littlejohn motionless in the saddle for long moments after he first saw the floundering man. The big, ugly roan under him was standing on Mexican soil, and Littlejohn meant to keep it that way until he was sure this was not a trap.

Outlawed, with a sizable reward offered for his dead-or-alive capture, there was more than an off chance that the man in the river was simply a decoy, meant to draw him out into the open where guns on the Texas shore could whittle him down.

Joe Fry, a deputy U. S. Marshal who worked out of Austin, was hanging around Tornillio, on the Texas side of the River. And stocky, derby-wearing, cigar-chewing Joe Fry was clever enough to dream up a stunt like having some hombre make out like he was drowning, hoping Long Sam Littlejohn would be foolish enough to try being a hero.

“You and me forded this river at daylight this mornin’, Sleeper, and didn’t wet the skirts of this saddle,” Long Sam mused aloud. “The gent could stand up and wade, unless he’s gosh-awful short.”

Long Sam held his Sleeper horse motionless where black shadows from the thickets mantled them. His Stetson, sateen shirt, pants and boots were jetty black. The double gun-belts about his lean middle were the color of ebony, as were his handtooled holsters that held black-butted sixshooters low on his bony thighs. Long Sam knew that he could not be seen by the man in the river, nor by anyone who might be watching from the farther shore.

But Long Sam did not wait to see what would happen to the man in the river’s current. The gaunt, unusually tall outlaw suddenly touched Sleeper’s ribs with dull rowels, then hiked his feet up along the pommel of the saddle. He built a small noose, and did not take his eyes off the Texas side of the river until he was close enough to hear the man wallowing in the water.

“Hey, feller!” Littlejohn sang out. “Grab a-hold of this rope. Catch it, and I’ll tow yuh—”

Long Sam’s voice ended in a yell of rage and alarm. Something popped through the crown of his hat and on the Texas river bank powder flame was painting vivid streaks. Three guns were being fired over there, but that was about all Long Sam had time to figure out. Sleeper suddenly bawled in pain and headed for Mexico in wild lunges.

Long Sam was peeled out of the saddle and in the water before he could do more than cuss. He grabbed his guns to keep them from jouncing out of holsters, as he splashed down into the water.

He smashed into a pair of weakly kicking legs, then got his boots on the bottom and grabbed a fistful of wet clothing. He pushed his head above water, but stayed crouched low. The man he had grabbed was wallowing around as if trying to get his feet on the bottom.

“Jumpin’ Judas!” Long Sam gasped as he got a good look at the white, contorted face.

The man he had hold of was lanky young Tom Grady, Sheriff of Tornillio, on the Texas bank of the river!

“Tom, what in blazes!” Long Sam said sharply.

A bullet threw water in Littlejohn’s face, and suddenly he flattened out in the river, swimming with one hand and shoving Tom Grady ahead of him. A man cursed harshly from the Texas shore, and bullets made dangerous hail around the gaunt outlaw and the dazed lawman.

Long Sam quartered in toward the Mexican shore. His searching boots hit bottom, then he was wading out on a gravel bar, dragging Sheriff Tom Grady to dry ground.

“Tom!” he croaked. “You hear me, Tom Grady?”

The sheriff moaned and Long Sam bent over him, shaking his shoulder. But suddenly the gaunt outlaw straightened, a growl of anger in his throat.

“Drunker than a boiled owl!” he rasped. “No wonder you couldn’t keep your big feet under you, out there in the river. I ought to throw you back in!”

Grady was a strapping fellow, with thick black hair and black eyes. Until a year ago, he had been just a good-natured cowhand, who owned a little greasy-sack outfit back north of Tornillio.

Then somebody had got the bright idea of running young Grady for sheriff, and he had won the election, although he’d had no experience as a lawman. And now tales were being whispered that Tom Grady was using his star to shield a gang of road agents and stock thieves!

Tom Grady was moving, and Long Sam leaned over, gripped the sheriff’s shoulder.

“Hold it, Tom!” Long Sam warned.

Tom Grady almost got on his feet, but suddenly his right leg buckled, and he went down hard, a moan in his throat. He lay there blinking up at Long Sam.

“Tom, you hurt?” Long Sam asked sharply. “The way that right leg of yores buckled—”

“You, eh?” Tom Grady croaked. “Long Sam Littlejohn, the bountyplastered hellion who used to drop by my greasy-sack Block G spread to mooch a bait of grub and rest his wore-out hoss. I called you friend, Littlejohn, and meant it. But you ain’t the only human I was mistaken about.”

“Get hold of your wits, Tom,” Long Sam said quietly.

“Who do you think you’re kiddin’, Littlejohn?” the sheriff asked thickly. “Deputy Joe Fry has been tellin’ me that you’re the boy behind all the robberies and killings around here lately.”

Long Sam Littlejohn swore savagely. Joe Fry hated him bitterly, hounded and hunted him constantly. It was pride that made Joe Fry such a bitter enemy of Long Sam Littlejohn’s, for Long Sam was the only outlaw Fry ever had been unsuccessful in seriously trying to apprehend.

Tom Grady cursed, pawed clumsily at the empty holster on his right leg. There had been no gun in the holster when Long Sam had dragged him ashore.

“Yon put a bullet through this right leg of mine, so quit tryin’ to cover up, Sam!” Grady muttered.

“Are you daffy?” Long Sam snapped. “I wasn’t a hundred yards from Brad Eaker’s bank when that blast you and yore bunch set tore the door off the vault!” Tom Grady rasped. “I straddled the first hoss I seen and scooted around behind Eaker’s bank. I heard you and yore bunch ridin’ out at a run, and lit out after the sound. I was gettin’ close to the Tornillio ford when you, or one of yore bunch, smoked me out of the saddle.”

“You bonehead, I didn’t have anything to do with Brad Eaker’s bank gettin’ robbed!” Long Sam growled.

“Pull one of them six-shooters you pack and finish me off, you crane-legged son!” Tom Grady croaked. “You’d be doin’ me a favor, Sam, if you’d drill me. Evelyn Kelton will marry Brad Eaker now. I was drunk again tonight, and her dad, Ben Kelton, will make her see that if I’d been sober that bank robbery wouldn’t have happened. Hub Carson will stand by me. So will Hub’s two men, Jud Ollard and Harry Zane. But nobody else will take my part. This star will be pulled off me, and I’ll be kicked out of office.”

“When you’re sober, Tom, I reckon I can put yuh straight on a few things,” Long Sam said gruffly. “Right now, yuh’re too muddle-headed to understand anything, so just lay still, and let me work on that leg.”

Long Sam knelt down beside the sheriff. He heard Tom Grady curse, and saw glassy eyes rake him. Long Sam pulled a stock knife out of his pocket, opened a razor-sharp blade, and started to rip the sheriff’s trouser leg. But he saw the sudden tension in Grady’s lanky frame, and was already rocking back when Grady slammed him alongside the head with a fist-sized rock he had picked up.

“Gotcha, by grab!” Grady whooped.

Long Sam was groggy and half-blind from pain. Tom Grady was on top of him, grinning lopsidedly as he lifted the rock for another blow.

“Yuh’re askin’ for trouble!” Long Sam rasped, and snaked a six-shooter from leather.

Tom Grady did not make a sound after the flashing gun caught him across the side of the head. He pitched over, and did not even twitch as Long Sam bucked him off.

“Now, yuh knothead, mebbe I’ll get a look at that wound in yore leg!” the gaunt outlaw said grimly.

The wound was deep and bleeding badly, but the bullet had gone through, missed the bone by a narrow margin, and left a clean hole. Long Sam bandaged the wound tightly, saw that the bleeding was stopping, then got up, sauntered along the river until he found his Stetson which had been caught in a little eddy. He fished the hat out and turned upriver, leaving Tom Grady there on the gravel bar. But there was an odd grin on Long Sam Littlejohn’s wide mouth as he walked along, clutching the sheriff’s star he had taken off Tom Grady’s wet shirt.

Long Sam found Sleeper near the ford, snorting and stamping and wringing his ratty tail.

“No wonder yuh’re in such a pretty mood!” the outlaw chuckled suddenly.

Sleeper was not hurt seriously, although there was an oozing welt across the root of his tail where the slug had scraped away the hair and burned the skin. It was nearing midnight when Long Sam halted Sleeper behind an old shed on the outskirts of Tornillio. He left the roan there, and moved cautiously in until he was standing in the black maw of a narrow passageway between two buildings, watching the long, rutted street out of sober eyes.

A bank robbery was something to bother any community, and Long Sam was not surprised to find the street jam-packed with excited people, milling around Brad Eaker’s bank, a solid brick building across the street from where Long Sam stood. He waited until a group of men stamped past on the warped boardwalk, then stepped out behind them, sauntering along casually.

“Hey, there’s Brad Eaker out on the bank steps, now!” one of the party said sharply. “He said he’d tell us, soon as him and his men got through checkin’, whether the bank could ever open again or not. Come on!”

The whole bunch lit out running, Long Sam Littlejohn right behind them. He pushed into the crowd about the bank. Long Sam halted, smoky eyes lifting to Brad Eaker, who stood on the bank steps, waiting for the crowd to grow quiet.

Brad Eaker was a big man, wellclad, handsome, and calm as he stood there, letting the noise die. His hair was wavy and brown, his rugged features showed no emotion as he waited, running sharp brown eyes over the now hushed throng.

“None of us need have nightmares tonight, my friends,” he said, and smiled suddenly. “I have no way of knowing why, but those bandits took only two bags of silver money. They overlooked the real cash, which is safe.”

Cheering followed, and Long Sam began working his way gradually toward the sidewalk.

“Man, won’t them bandits cuss when they find out they got nothin’ but some chicken feed!” some hombre near Long Sam bawled.

“It’s a durned shame Tom Grady got hurt, mebbe killed, over such a little amount of our money, boys,” a grizzled little man said.

“Tom Grady ain’t too much of a loss, Mr. Kelton!” another man said. “Besides, didn’t you run Tom Grady off yore Rail K Ranch for callin’ on that Evelyn gal of yores?”

“The personal differences between me and Tom Grady don’t matter!” the bowlegged little cattleman snapped.

Long Sam was easing toward Ben Kelton, watching the leathery face of the little ranchman grow red with anger as men in the crowd snickered slyly. Ben Kelton, whose Rail K range sprawled for miles along the river, was rated a bad man to cross.

Kelton’s knobby fist was on the bone grips of an old six-shooter on his thigh, facing a burly, sandy-haired man who had the tawny eyes of a cougar and a flatcheeked, bent-nosed face that showed the scars of years of brawling. Beside the big, tawny-eyed galoot was a little short man, who had chill gray eyes under heavy black brows, and a button-nosed face that was slashed across by a wide mouth that grinned in an odd, slow way.

Seeing those two, who had suddenly confronted little old Ben Kelton, Long Sam Littlejohn hurried his stride. That big, cougar-eyed gent was Jud Ollard, and the little, pot-bellied one was Harry Zane.

Sheriff Tom Grady had said something about Jud Ollard and Harry Zane being hooked up with Hub Carson, who owned all the gambling in this Tornillio town. But Long Sam remembered Jud and Harry as professional gun-slingers, as deadly a pair of killers as Texas had ever known.

“So yuh run Tom Grady off yore place, eh, Kelton?” Jud Ollard was saying slowly. “And the boy ain’t drawed a sober breath since. The way I hear it, yuh want Brad Eaker for a son-in-law.”

“What business is it of yores, Ollard?” Ben Kelton asked, and his voice was a thin purr of suppressed rage.

“Me and Jud ain’t stickin’ our noses into yore personal affairs, Mr. Kelton,” Harry Zane said smoothly.

“You two tryin’ to smear the blood of Tom Grady on my hands?” Kelton’s voice was still low.

“Take what we’ve said any way yuh please!” Ollard retorted. “But you and that high-headed daughter of yores made a sot out of Tom Grady.”

“How much did Hub Carson promise you two for my scalp?” Kelton asked, and his words carried over the hushed street.

“Dad, wait!” The voice was the thin wail of a girl.

Long Sam Littlejohn and Evelyn Kelton collided. Each had covered a last stride in a springing leap, and each had the same idea of getting between plucky old Ben Kelton and the two gunmen who were set to smoke him down. Jud Ollard cursed hotly and slammed out a big hand, trying to shove the girl out of his way.

“Ben, take care of Evelyn!” Long Sam growled, and pushed the slim, white-faced girl into her father’s arms.

Long Sam pivoted, sent a bony fist into Jud Ollard’s flat face as the burly gunman lunged at him. Ollard whipped backward, would have fallen if Harry Zane had not caught him.

“Jud, simmer down!” Zane said harshly. “That Big Shorty that hit you is a badge man!”

Grady's ball-pointed star was on the front of Long Sam’s black shirt. The gaunt outlaw had pinned it there as he pressed through the crowd, to head off the killing of little old Ben Kelton.

“Yeah, yuh’re right, Harry!” Ollard’s voice came heavily. “But turn me loose, and I’ll use that badge for a target!”

“Gettin’ sort of tall at the withers, ain’t yuh, Jud?” Long Sam droned. “For a couple of professional bushwackers, you and Harry made this deal pretty open. Hub Carson won’t like the way yuh tried to handle this killin’. Anything done out in the open is plumb against that tinhorn’s principles.”

“I’ve heard that voice of yores before, mister!” Harry Zane said sharply.

“Let go of me, Harry!” Ollard panted. “Turn me loose and I’ll send this longlegged hombre floatin’ down the river with Tom Grady!”

Long Sam felt an almost electric shock go through him. Without realizing what he did, he was suddenly humming a range dirge through big white teeth that were set hard together. And at the sound of that doleful humming, Harry Zane turned Jud Ollard loose. They stood gaping up at the tall outlaw, their eyes bugged-out and rolling uneasily.

“Long Sam Littlejohn, by grab!” Ollard croaked.

Long Sam quit humming. He heard Evelyn Kelton and her father both gasp in sharp amazement, and saw the crowd about him begin shifting.

“That’s right, Jud!” Long Sam made his desperate play. “You named me. I’m Long Sam Littlejohn. Some folks call me an outlaw. Others don’t reckon I’m that kind of cattle a-tall. Tom Grady is one gent who has sense enough to know I’m not a thief or a killer. I fished Tom out of the river a while ago, and bound up a bullet-hole in his hide. Tom’s hurt, but not fatal. I decided to wear this badge till he’s up and around. You and Harry head for that Plantation dive of Hub Carson, and stay there. Don’t either one of yuh try to quit town. Tell Hub I said the same goes for him.”

“What do yuh mean, me or Jud or Hub can’t leave town if we want to, yuh noosedodger?” Zane rapped out nervously.

“I mean I’ll be around to see you galoots later,” Long Sam said coldly. “Jud Ollard made a bad slip when he said he’d send me floatin’ down the river with Tom Grady. When I get time, I want to ask yuh, Jud, how come yuh knowed Tom wound up in the Rio with a bullet in him.”

Ollard’s eyes looked like marbles on a stick, Long Sam decided. Zane seemed as badly scared. They were backing up, crawfishing into a group of men who muttered and cursed and glared. Then Ollard and Zane heeled around at the same second, went slamming away along the street at a clumsy trot.

“Ben, you and Miss Evelyn come along!” the gaunt outlaw said quickly.

“Tom will be faunchin’ to see you two, soon as he’s patched up better’n I could do for him.”

“Not so fast, Littlejohn!” a hard voice rapped out. “Mebbe Tom Grady deputized yuh, or mebbe he didn’t. Us citizens will have somethin’ to say about that.”

“Stick yore thumbs in yore ears and keep yore mouths shut!” little old Ben Kelton lashed out. “If Littlejohn was runnin’ a sandy, he wouldn’t be takin’ Evelyn and me to Tom. I’m backin’ Long Sam’s play, so don’t get notions, any of yuh!”

“Ben’s right, boys,” a man said thoughtfully. “Littlejohn ain’t skitterin’ around behind no stump with what he’s doin’, for shore.”

Long Sam was urging Ben Kelton and the girl toward the board walk. Evelyn crowded close beside him, touched his arm as they stepped upon the warped boards.

“You saved Dad’s life, Long Sam Littlejohn,” she said shakily. “But what about Tom? Is he badly hurt?”

“Tom’ll be all right,” Long Sam said, keeping his voice down. “He’s got a wound in his leg that needs attention. Any of yore men in town who’d go get Tom, and keep their mouths shut about it, Ben?”

“Them brush-poppers of mine know how to take orders, son,” Kelton said gravely.

Long Sam explained how he had fished the sheriff out of the river, and how he had left him over on the Mexican shore. Evelyn whimpered uneasily, her fingers digging the gaunt outlaw’s arm nervously as they strode along. Old Ben Kelton swore under his breath.

“Now send for Tom, Ben,” Long Sam finished. “Only have yore men forget to mention that I’m wearin’ his badge for him.”

“Tom didn’t depitize yuh?” the oldster asked sharply.

“I borried this badge.” Long Sam laughed grimly. “So don’t let on to Tom. Joe Fry has got him thinkin’ I’m the huckleberry behind the bandit trouble yuh’ve been havin’ around here.”

“Joe Fry got faunchin’ mad when that bunch blowed the bank vault open,” Ben Kelton said. “Fry was bellerin’ yore name, claimin’ you ramrodded the robbery. Fry and a posse he raked together found four sweat-marked hosses down the river a mile or so.”

“Bandits wouldn’t have changed mounts that soon!” Long Sam said.

“I couldn’t see it that way, either,” the little cowman chuckled. “There wasn’t the sign of a saddle mark on them sweated ponies, and I tried to tell Fry the broncs had been stampeded to throw off pursuit. But he couldn’t see it that way. He claimed you and yore bunch would head for Hoss-shoe Bend, down the river, and lit out with his posse. Them bandits done what 1 tried to tell Fry they had—spooked them riderless hosses down the river, then hit the ford and sifted into Mexico. Tom Grady savvied the play, but got hurt tryin’ to stop the bank robbers.”

“I camped on the cutbank above the ford, on the Mexican side of the Rio, just at daylight this mornin’,” Long Sam said quietly. “And I was still over there, fixin’ to slip across and come into town when I heard Tom hit the water, on this side. Nobody crossed that river, Ben.”

“I’ll be dad-burned!” Kelton said slowly.

“Those men who fired at you when you rode into the river to help Tom!” Evelyn cried. “They must have been the bandits! And they were hiding there, watching Tom flounder in the water, knowing he would drown. But who would do such a vicious, cowardly thing as that?”

“Hub Carson, Jud Ollard and Harry Zane would do a thing like that,” Long Sam said flatly.

“That’s right,” Kelton gritted.

“Yuh don’t think Tom is takin’ a cut from the outlaw band that has been operatin’ around here, do yuh, Ben?” Long Sam asked bluntly.

“Of course I don’t!” the cowman said flatly. “Tom’s no cussed crook. But that fool kid just ain’t fast enough in the head ever to be a badgeman. He trusts everybody, and expects the other feller’s word to be as good as his own. Tom’s a cowman from his big feet up to the top of his thick head—one of the best, for his age, I’ve ever knowed.”

“Let’s go get Tom, Dad,” Evelyn said anxiously. “And please don’t quarrel with him, will you?”

“I ain’t in the habit of kickin’ a man after he’s down, young ‘un!” Ben Kelton grunted.

“If he mentions tomorrow’s meeting, can’t you let him think that you’ve put it off?” Evelyn asked anxiously. “Besides, he really won’t be able to testify now, will he?”

“Doc Purcell will have to say whether Tom can go to the meetin’ tomorrow or not,” Ben Kelton said bluntly.

“Hold on!” Long Sam said sharply. “What’s this about some kind of a meetin’, with Tom Grady slated to testify, Ben?”

“I still swing a little weight around here, Sam,” the cowman said drily. “I got the county commissioners to hold a meetin’, tomorrow afternoon, and Tom Grady will be called on the carpet.”

“Why?” Long Sam asked bluntly.

“Every time them cussed bandits have pulled a caper, Tom has been off some place, where he couldn’t be reached till hours after the crime was committed!” Ben Kelton declared. “I’ve asked Tom why he’s never here when trouble busts loose, but he just bulls up and won’t answer. Tom’s prideful, and won’t want that star taken off him. He’ll talk, when the commissioners go after him.”

“No doubt Tom would talk!” Long Sam cried excitedly. “And whoever has been pullin’ the wool over his eyes, by gettin’ him out of the way any time a holdup or the like was planned, knows Tom will answer questions for the commissioners, too! No wonder they tried to kill Tom Grady tonight!”

“What’s gettin’ yuh so het up?” Kelton demanded.

“I’ve got nothin’ to go on but hunches, so let it ride,” the outlaw said hastily.

When Long Sam halted, Ben Kelton and the girl stopped, too. The gaunt outlaw glanced out along the street, seeing the crowds still milling around, but noted that the excitement was dying down.

“Last time I was here, Ben, old Charlie Goss owned the Cattleman’s Bank,” Long Sam said. “When did that big bucko who calls himself Brad Eaker take over yore bank?”

“Brad bought Old Man Goss out about fifteen-sixteen months back, I reckon,” Kelton said absently. “Brad’s a nice boy, shrewd and mightly progressive.”

“Yuh think he’d make a better son-inlaw than Tom Grady, eh, Ben?” Long Sam asked mildly.

“Long Sam Littlejohn!” Evelyn said sharply.

“Well, it’s the truth!” her father declared. “If you’d quit moonin’ over that fool Tom, yuh could marry Brad in nothin’ flat, young lady. But yuh’ll keep on dawdlin’ around until some other gal gets him. Then where’ll yuh be?”

“She’ll still be in love with Tom Grady, just as she is now,” Long Sam put in hastily. “And a lot smarter than her pappy, too.”

“What in tunket yuh mean by that, Sam?” the little cattleman asked irately.

Long Sam laid his hand on Evelyn’s shoulder. She looked up at him quickly, but did not attempt to pull away.

“Add this lovely young lady to the trouble Tom Grady would have made for certain people if he testified before the county commissioners tomorrow, Ben, and yuh’ve got the answer to why the bank was robbed tonight by men who didn’t want the money, but did want Tom Grady dead,” Long Sam said slowly. “Also, this man yuh admire, and call Brad Eaker, happens to be a crooked gambler and gunfighter. I knew him when he was boss of one of the toughest towns along this river. He called himself Earl Bradlock then. When I heard that Bradlock was up here, runnin’ the bank and playin’ plumb pious, I decided mebbe the things I’d been hearin’ about Tom Grady goin’ haywire needed lookin’ into. So I rode up to have a look-see, and if you and Evelyn will go fetch Tom in before that bushwack bunch can find him, I’ll tell yuh the rest of the story, later.”

“Sam, wait!” Evelyn almost wailed.

“Hold on, Littlejohn!” her father yelped.

But Long Sam was deaf to their pleas. He had stepped off the boardwalk, vanishing into the black maw of a narrow runway between two buildings. He groped his way out to the cluttered alley, eyes cold and alert as he crouched in the shadows beside the wall, waiting. Off to his right a tin can clattered, and a man cursed thickly.

Brad Eaker, as the man now called himself, was in the alley, mincing along, picking his way cautiously. While standing out on the street, talking with Ben Kelton and his daughter, Long Sam had seen Brad Eaker come out of the bank, lock the door, then duck around the side toward the alley.

The gaunt outlaw grinned faintly, and slid a six-shooter silently into his right hand. Eaker was almost on top of him, starting past the narrow passageway, when Long Sam reared up, the six-shooter jabbing the banker in the ribs.

“Freeze up, Bradlock!” the outlaw droned.

The banker stopped in his tracks, lifted his hands shoulder high, and waited. Only the raspy sound of his breathing told of the emotions that stormed through him.

“The name is Eaker, Littlejohn,” he said flatly. “Not that it really matters, of course. But my name is actually Bradlock Eaker.”

“We’ve met before,” Long Sam reminded.

“Yes,” Eaker said. “I heard that you were in town, Littlejohn. I wanted to find you, to ask you to keep your mouth shut about me. I’m doing well here, and absolutely on the straight and narrow.”

“Yuh had a chance to do well here, and play a straight game, to boot,” Long Sam said. “But yuh couldn’t keep from showin’ yore stripes. Yuh had Hub Carson ballyhoo a dumb cowpuncher by the name of Tom Grady into the sheriff’s office, knowin’ that weasel brain of yores could keep poor, blunderin’ Tom from gettin’ next to yore cute tricks. You’re the brains behind the robberies and killin’s that Hub Carson and his two handpicked killers have pulled around here. You fell for Tom’s girl, Evelyn Kelton, and tonight, Eaker, yuh blowed the door off yore own bank vault, while Hub Carson and Jud Ollard and Harry Zane waited out in the alley to stampede a bunch of riderless hosses off into the night for folks to hear, so’s it’d sound like bandits makin’ a getaway. Then Hub Carson and his two killers tolled Tom down to the river, shot him off his hoss, and aimed to watch him drown.”

“Littlejohn, listen to me!” Brad Eaker choked. “I don’t want stories started here. I’ll make it worth your while to keep your mouth shut. Do you hear me?”

That electric kind of shock he knew so well whipped along Littlejohn’s’ nerve ends, tensing him, putting a hard gleam in his watchful eyes. Eaker had lifted his voice on the last sentence, sent the words ringing out, clear and sharp.

Long Sam knew then that by some, strange fluke he had chosen a dangerous spot in which to accost this man. Somewhere, and certainly within possible hearing of his raised voice, there were others of his like.

“Yeah, I heard yuh, Eaker,” Long Sam droned coldly. “So did yore pards, I reckon.”

“Are you daffy?” Eaker’s voice ripped out. “I’ve no friends here, within hearing of my voice. Put that pistol up, and we’ll—”

Eaker’s voice ended in a sort of smothered groan. Wood rubbed raspingly against wood somewhere to Long Sam’s left, but close by. And there was a chattering rattle, too, that sounded the way a window might sound if someone raised it in too much haste. Long Sam saw a cluttered loading platform at the back of the nearest building, caught a faint movement in a window there above the platform. Then Eaker’s whole body convulsed, and his hand clamped Long Sam’s wrist, shoving it down as the Colt roared.

Long Sam’s eyes whipped back to Eaker, but the banker’s knee slammed up into his middle, doubling him over, sending a thousand needles of red-hot pain through him. Eaker’s free hand, balled into a big fist, ripped into Long Sam’s face, making sodden sounds.

“No shooting!” Eaker’s voice, sharp and commanding, punctured the fog of shock that was threatening to engulf Long Sam.

“Waltz him around this way, Boss!” Jud Ollard’s hoarse voice growled. “Spin him around, and I’ll bend this gun on his skull!”

Long Sam’s left hand slid down, peeled the six-shooter from holster on that side. Eaker was swearing and puffing, trying to spin him around. The gaunt outlaw rocked violently back, slammed the six-shooter he had drawn into Eaker’s shining teeth.

“Look out, boys!” a voice howled. “Jud! Harry! Smoke that hellion down!”

Eaker’s voice was a sick scream of pain as he went over backward, mouth smashed against teeth that had broken like glass. Long Sam felt Eaker’s hand slip off his right wrist, and whipped that gun down across the bloody, contorted face of the banker. Then Long Sam leaped across Brad Eaker’s senseless hulk, taking a dive at the ground that rattled his own teeth.

“Hub Carson!” he muttered.

“Hub” Carson was over by the loading platform behind the building where he and Ollard and Zane had unquestionably been waiting for a secret rendezvous with Eaker. Carson was crouched, fanning shots out of a nickel-plated six-shooter with too much speed for accuracy. The moonlight touched his oiled hair, threw his long, narrow face into white relief.

Big Jud Ollard was crouching behind a brace of spitting guns, yelling something at Carson that was drowned in the roar of weapons. Zane was off to the right a piece, out in the open alley, kneeling down with a six-shooter gripped in both hands. Long Sam’s right hand Colt bucked, and Zane’s arms flew high, waving jerkily for a moment or two before the gunman tipped over on his face.

A bullet bit the right side of Long Sam’s already bloody face, making him wince so violently he missed Carson with a left-hand shot. Another slug kicked dirt into the outlaw’s eyes, and a third split the skin across the top of his left shoulder. He drove a second shot at Ollard, who had suddenly run toward him, yelling.

Ollard’s howl became a strangled cough, and the guns spilled out of his hands as he pitched over on his face, blood spraying from his mouth.

“Hold It, Carson!” Long Sam roared when Hub Carson, gun empty, leaped up and tried to run.

Carson kept going, his lanky body hunched far over. He was out in the open alley, sprinting desperately toward his Plantation, where there were guns to be had, and hired gunmen and hangers-on who would do his bidding. Long Sam missed twice, but at the third shot Carson’s tall form went up into the air, and an eerie scream wailed through the night as the gambler came down, clutching a broken leg.

Voices roaring in excitement, and the pound of booted feet drawing closer, brought Long Sam up. He reloaded hot guns, groaned from the sting of cuts and bruises when he dragged a sleeve across his face.

“Sam, what the blue blazes happened, son?”

Old Ben Kelton was beside Long Sam, goggling up at his torn, bloody face.

“Never mind, Ben,” the outlaw growled. “Brad Eaker and Hub Carson are both still alive. Have some of this bunch gather ‘em up before they crawl off some place. We’ll play one of ‘em against the other, and they’ll talk each other’s necks into nooses.”

“You sift, son!” Ben Kelton said tensely. “I sent Evelyn and four of my Rail K hands over for Tom. I stayed behind when that Joe Fry galoot come back to town, cussin’ a blue streak—”

“I don’t need a blue print, Ben!” Long Sam cut in hastily. “Here, take this badge I borried, and when Tom Grady has sense enough to know what yuh’re sayin’, tell him I said thanks for the loan of it.”

“You hurt much, Sam?” Kelton asked. “Not as much as I will be, if Joe Fry gets me notched in his sights!” the gaunt outlaw grunted. “Adios, Ben. And don’t forget, amigo, that windin’ up with a sonin-law who’s a good cowman ain’t too bad a deal, after all.”

“Don’t rub it in!” Ben Kelton grimaced. “Evelyn and her mammy will rag me plenty about makin’ the kind of mistake I did about Brad Eaker. You hit for Mexico, now, till that sorehead, Joe Fry, gets through pawin’ and bellerin’ around here. But don’t drift off any place, son. I’d bet every cow brute I own that Tom Grady will want yuh to be his best man when him and Evelyn are married.”

“Tell Evelyn not to rush their weddin’, for borryin’ that badge shore got me skinned up!” Long Sam chuckled.