Western Short Story
Jeb Dales never asked why. He just asked who, where, when and how much. That was all he needed to know. For an agreed upon amount of money Jeb Dales would kill anyone. No questions were asked, none answered. His life was simple and uncomplicated, just as he liked it. He earned more than enough money to meet his simple needs and he lived a quiet life when not on the job. He had three cabins built across the Midwest and would vary his time at each depending on the weather and where the work took him. At each one he paid a local to watch and maintain them when he was gone. He never advertised his craft, never marketed his services in any way. He did not need to. He had a steady number of longstanding clients who could be counted on to always want someone gotten out of the way. They told a few others within that high-income and high-powered echelon, and that was all the work Jeb Dales ever needed.
He was an almost complete unknown and that was just how he liked it. He never used his name, at least not his real one. He was never in direct contact with clients and had arranged a roundabout way to get directions and payment. His plans were always detailed and meticulous and always included leaving absolutely no evidence that would connect him to the deaths. Sometimes it was murder, sometimes Jeb was able to make it look like an unfortunate accident, sometimes like a sudden medical condition. He was highly skilled with guns, ropes, knives and poisons and had never needed more.
Now in his forty-seventh year Jeb had lost count of the number of 'cases' he had taken on. He had never been particularly interested in counting them anyway. That was childish, he thought and only a fool cared.
Then all of that changed.
Because now someone was hunting Jeb Dales, and Jeb did not know who or why. Two of his contacts, from two separate towns, had let him know through various means that a man had been asking questions and looking for Jeb Dales. He was not looking to hire Jeb. That had also been clear from his questions and his attitude. This man was hunting Jeb.
Jeb sat in his cabin on Devil's Peak, where he spent most of his time when not on a job, and considered the situation. He had a description of the man. Early thirties, tall and lean, looking to be gun handy and with very serious grey eyes. Everyone noticed the eyes. The man did not smile. He rode a grey gelding and seemed to have time and money necessary to keep looking for a long time. That according to Jeb's contacts, and they would know.
So Jeb sat in his cabin high on the mesa and wondered. To hightail it and run? To change his name and go into hiding somewhere he was not known? To track down and kill the man? To hire someone to do that for him? All of these questions he pondered, staring into the fire and sipping on homemade moonshine just like his grandpa used to make back in Kentucky.
No need to panic quite yet, he thought. He was not about to give up his career. Simplest thing seemed to be to set a trap, an ambush of some kind. Have someone tip this man off about where to find Jeb and Jeb would be waiting for him. But that plan had a serious flaw in it. It meant Jeb would have to let this man get close to him and that did not seem wise.
Jeb decided to hire someone to kill the man. And not just someone. A couple of separate men, each promised large sums of money to eliminate the man who was looking for Jeb Dales. Quickly too, if they wanted the money. First to get the job done got the money.
The arrangements were made through the same contact that arranged Jeb's work. That contact hired two men, provided information on the man along with a detailed description and his last known location and set them after him. Once he had set things in motion, Jeb Dales relaxed and simply waited for news of the man's death, and his identity.
Mal Peterson rode into the dusty town of Hollister as the evening was fading into night. He put up the big grey gelding in the livery along with the pack mule that carried his things. Paying to have them checked and cared for, he headed across the street and booked a room at the Dover Arms, a clean enough hotel if one was not too particular. He was not.
He cleaned up in his room and headed to the Rosewood Diner he had seen up the street. The lights there were still on, food was being served and he had a late dinner. There were only two others in the diner, sitting off at a corner table, and the service was prompt and friendly. Tardy Ball was the proprietor, a stocky man with many seasons behind him driving chuck wagons on countless trail drives across the Midwest.
"Don't mind having my feet back on solid ground," he said, chuckling. "Riding them wagons all them years durn near rattled every bone in this here body. Now I have my own place in my own town."
"Can be a good thing, to be settled," Mal replied.
"What brings yuh to Hollister?" Ball asked.
"Looking for a man," Mal said, noting the raised eyebrows. He nodded, "Yes, just like you're thinking, hunting him. His names Jeb Dales and he's a hired killer. I don't know how many he's killed over the years, though I'm told it's been many, but he killed one too many about three years ago and it's got to stop."
"Kin o yours he kilt?"
Mal shook his head. "Friend, more like a big brother, you might say. Taught me most of what I know about life and living. Didn't deserve to die."
"How d'it happen?"
"He was a lawyer prosecuting a rail company. Two men on the board hired Dales to kill him because he was getting too close to convicting them."
"After them two as well?"
Mal shook his head. "One's in prison already. The other's dead."
Tardy Ball did not need to ask who had killed that one. He liked this man.
"Sumwhat you should know," he said, lowering his voice. "I heerd there's a man asking about anyone who'd be on the hunt. Salty lookin.' Best watch your back, son. It's mebbe the guy you're huntin' is huntin' you back."
The eyes flashed and then hardened. "I hadn't considered that," Mal said, "but I suppose it makes sense. Thanks for the warning. I'll be careful."
"That careful stuff begins by going out the back way. You rode into town not knowin' what you know now and so's you wasn't careful about letting folks see you. Walkin' out that there front door might not be the best idea."
Mal smiled wryly and nodded. He left money on the counter and went out the back door, looking both ways. Then he crossed in the shadows and went to his room, propped a chair under the doorknob and slept.
He walked cheerfully into the marshal's office the first thing in the morning and asked about Jeb Dales.
"Never heard the name," the marshal replied, "but I know about the man and he's a dangerous enemy, especially when you don't know what he looks like. He could just walk up and shoot you and you'd be none the wiser. Still, nice to have a name on him. Thanks for that."
"Could be he's after me," Mal replied, "but I keep a careful eye on anyone getting that close. Can you add anything to what I already know?"
"Just rumours," Bob Mathieson said. "No one contacts him direct. They go through someone else, though who and where no one knows. Story goes he lives in a mountain cabin away from everything and everyone when not on the hunt. That's 'bout all I know. Wish I could help you more but I'll ask around."
"Every little bit helps," Mal replied. "It's taken me almost three years to learn the man's name and something of his way of operating."
"A long time to be chasing a ghost."
"Well, I had to take time to work here and there to replenish my funds, but I'm getting steadily closer. I spent much of that time preparing myself. Now I understand he's likely hired folks to stop me so I must be giving him blisters somewhere tender." He smiled.
Bob Mathieson chuckled. "Must be. Well, stay safe, young fella."
Huskie Ralston, the livery owner, was leaning over the forge when Mal entered the livery barn to pick up his animals. He was saddling the big grey when Ralston sauntered over.
"Was a feller in here a while ago studying your horses," he said in his raspy voice, talking around a big wad of chewing tobacco. "Seemed like he was mighty interested in them and you."
"Can you describe him?" Mal asked and Huskie did so.
"He headed out on a reddish bay," he added, "but if I had to guess I'd say he'll be watching for you to leave and he'll foller yuh, or mebbe worse."
"Thanks," Mal said, "I'll be watching for him."
He rode out the back door of the livery and into the woods behind, mixing right away with the trees. When he left their protection a half-hour later it was to hug the shadow of a sheer butte for a half-hour. Then he found a sheltered spot for lunch,watched and waited.
He saw a few riders passing by in the distance, coming and going along the trail, but being this close to town that would not be unusual. Then, off to the east he thought he saw the red flash of a horse and rider. It could be the big bay, he thought, and if so the man was hurrying to get ahead of him. That meant an ambush was likely in his future.
So be it, he thought. He cleaned his campsite and mounted the grey, heading east and with both eyes looking sharply around and ahead.
The man lying on the hill with the rifle was careless. He lay in the shade of a tree but the tip of his rifle was in the sun and Mal saw the reflection while still far away. Not appearing to notice, he turned the horse toward a sheltered stream among the trees and got down, letting the horse and mule drink. While they did, he ducked into the woods and made his way up the slope, wanting to get above the man before he wondered where Mal had gotten to.
Ten minutes later he had the man in view and worked his way closer.
"Move and you die," Mal said. The man did not move.
"Toss the rifle and pistol aside."
The man did.
"Now stand up and turn around. No sudden movements."
The man did exactly as he was told. He was in his mid-thirties, unshaven and with a perpetual scowl on his face. He looked markedly unhappy.
"What's your name?"
"Who sent you, Mace Oren?" Mal asked.
"Go to hell!" the man snarled.
The bullet smacked into the dirt two inches from the man's right foot.
"Next one will take out a knee. I'm not patient. Who sent you?"
"I don't know what . . ." Mal shot him in the right knee. The man screamed and fell over, writing in pain on the ground.
Mal waited patiently until the screaming stopped. The man lay on his side, curled up. Mal stood over him and aimed his pistol at the other knee.
"Who sent you?"
"Alright, dammit all," the man said between clenched teeth. "It was Burly Tatter what hired me."
"Who's Burly Tatter?"
"Owns the saloon in Hatton Junction. Paid me to hunt you."
"I don't ask why, I just do what he pays me to do."
"Why is he protecting Jeb Dales?"
"Who?" The look of confusion was genuine.
"Never mind." Mal kicked the rifle and pistol over the edge of the butte, watching them tumble to the bottom then walked away, turning once. "If I see you again, I'll kill you. I'm going to be riding west. You get patched up, ride east and don't look back."
He rode steadily for two days to reach Hatton Junction, arriving at dinner time. He had a meal in the local diner and then wandered down to the Half Moon, the only saloon in the small town. He ordered a beer at the bar and studied the people inside. No one roused concern.
He sipped at the beer and waited until the bartender moved closer.
"Nice little town," Mal said.
The man shrugged. "It's awright as towns go, I suppose. Could be busier."
Mal extended his hand. "Names Jones. Tom Jones."
The hand was shaken. "Burly Tatter. I own the place."
"Nice place. Not too big, not too small. Just right for someone to retire from someday and live out their days in comfort."
"Suppose so," Tatter said.
"If he lives," Mal continued.
Tatter looked askance at him.
"And if he doesn't hire people to kill someone who doesn't want to be killed. Someone just like me."
Burly Tatter's face paled. "Whaddya mean?"
"You know what I mean, Tatter. Mace Oren told me you hired him. Out here, something like that can get a man killed." He calmly sipped his beer, holding the mug in his left hand. His right hand was out of sight and Burly Tatter could guess it was resting on a gun butt.
"Now I don't know what Mace told you, but . . ."
Mal put down the mug and held up his hand. "Tatter, I'm going to give you one chance to tell me what I need to know. If you don't, you'll end up like Mace Oren, and you won't like it."
Tatter raised both hands. "Awright, awright. I was told to hire someone to stop you, to kill you, that is. That's all. I done what I was told."
"Who told you?"
Tatter blanched. "I cain't tell you that. I'd be as good as dead!"
Mal smiled. "And you don't think you're as good as dead now?"
Tatter blanched, then nodded. "It was a written message, like always. I don't know who it was from! Every once in a while, I get told to do something. Then later another envelope with money in it arrives."
"Mace was tight-lipped too till I shot him in the knee. Then he was talkative. I'm guessing the same would be true of you." All this was delivered in a calm, even tone that had Burly Tatter literally shaking in his boots.
"Awright," Tatter hissed. "I ain't supposed to know, but I got curious one time and had the man what delivered the note follered. He went to Bruce Barlow's office in Deadwood. Barlow's a lawyer who I hear ain't afeared to break the law if'n he has to get what he wants done."
He put up his hands. "There. That's all I know. My oath on it!"
"If I find out you've warned Barlow that I'm coming, I'll be back here to see you and it will be both knees."
Mal turned and walked out. Burly Tatter put both hands on the bar to steady himself. He was not going to tell anyone anything, but he sure as hell did not want to be Bruce Barlow when the man with the grey eyes found him.
It was almost a week later when Mal Peterson stabled the horse and mule at Dusty Former's livery in Deadwood.
He paid for them to be cared for, checked for any work needed and well fed. Then he decided to have lunch at Rosy's Diner.
The food was good, even delicious, and real spicy. 'Rosy' turned out to be Fiore Deschamps, a Paris-trained chef who had emigrated from France three years earlier. There were only two others in the diner as it was a little past lunch time and Mal chatted with him.
"But it gets so much busier round the dinner time," Fiore said. "Come back then. I am to make something special tonight."
Mal said he would. Then he left the diner and headed across the street to the law office of Bruce Barlow. He entered to the ringing of a small bell.
There was a clerk seated at a desk in the outer office, a short stocky man with a red and serious face. Mal asked to see Barlow on a personal matter. The clerk disappeared into the back and then ushered Mal into a bright, spacious and well-appointed office. Barlow stood and offered his hand, a genuine and affable smile on his face. They both sat.
"What can I do for you, Mr. . . ." Barlow began.
"Jones," Mal offered. "I'd like to have you draft a last will and testament."
"Very well," Barlow said, sitting down and opening a new page on a legal pad. "I'll need a full name and birthdate for the form."
"The full name of the deceased is Bruce Barlow. I don't know the birthdate."
The hand stopped but remained steady. "I don't understand."
"You've helped arrange for someone to kill me, Mr. Barlow, and I'm here to ask why. I doubt there's any more you need to understand than that."
Barlow's right hand moved slightly.
"If you reach for a gun in that drawer I'll have to kill you and I'd rather not do that until I learn what I need from you. If you're helpful, you may live."
The hand stopped moving, the eyes hard and angry.
"What do you want?"
"Not much. Just the location of Jeb Dales' cabin. That'll do nicely, I think."
"I cannot give you that. I don't know the location."
Mal drew his pistol. "Then you are of no use to me, and since you hired men to kill me, I'm justified in returning the favour." He cocked the pistol.
Barlow's hands came up. "Wait! Wait! I'm just the middle man. Every once in a while, someone slides an envelope under my door. They come from different people and they have Dales' name on the front. They're left during the night. I never open them. I have my clerk ride out and leave the envelope in a cache outside Morrisburg. Then he heads back here. Sometime later another envelope, that one with cash, is put under the door. That's all I know!"
Mal pushed the thick yellow pad toward Barlow. "Draw me a map to the place where your clerk leaves these envelopes. Make it good one, Barlow. It's the price of breathing a little longer."
Barlow drew the map carefully and then folded it and handed it to Mal.
"Is that all?"
Mal shook his head. "Not quite." Mal took a sheet of paper, wrote a brief note and put it in an envelope taken from the desk.
"Address it in your handwriting, then call your clerk to deliver it."
Barlow addressed the envelope then called in his clerk and directed him to deliver it as usual. The clerk did not ask any questions, took the envelope, glanced at Mal, who smiled at him, and left. They heard the outer door close.
"It'll take him most of the day to get there," Barlow said.
"I know," Mal replied. "So there's no rush."
He backed toward the door, then paused. "I've been searching to find the middle man and now I know it's you. I'll be giving your name to almost two dozen families who have had members killed by Jeb Dales. I imagine there'll be a number of people coming after you. If you're lucky, they'll want you tried, though they might decide just to hang you from the nearest tree. You might consider turning yourself in to the law and admitting what you've done. Or you might start running. Up to you. I promise you Jeb Dales won't be coming to rescue you."
Mal backed out of the office, left and picked up his horses, turning the head of the big grey toward Morrisburg. He did not hurry, wanting to let the clerk have a good head start. He knew where he was going.
Bruce Barlow sat in his office, his head in his hands. What was he to do? He had no way to warn Jeb Dales now. He thought fleetingly that perhaps Jeb Dales would kill the man who had just ruined Barlow's life. But then he remembered the eyes and the quiet confidence of the man who called himself Jones and he had no doubt that Jeb Dales' comeuppance had arrived. He thought about turning himself in to the marshal, but shook that off. Instead, he cleaned out his office safe, taking a good deal of money, most held in trust for others, packed a few things and headed for the livery to get his horse. A short stop at his hotel room and he would be gone. A new name and a new life far away, that was his plan.
Mal watched from a distance in the early evening while the clerk deposited the envelope in a metal container placed into a hollow tree trunk. Then the man tied a red bandana to a long pole. When he stuck it upright into a hole in the ground, it was just like a flagpole. That was the signal. Then the little man simply mounted his horse and turned back toward Deadwood.
Mal camped for the night some distance away and left his horse and mule at his camp while he made his way back to a vantage point in the early morning. He followed this routine for three days before he heard the horse approaching from beyond the trees. He could not see the rider from his position, but he could see the hole in the tree in which the envelope had been placed.
He waited patiently until he saw slight motion at the tree. He had not seen the man approach and then suddenly there he was, reaching into the tree to extract the metal case that held the envelope.
"You move, you die," Mal said from thirty feet behind the man.
Dales was lightning quick, diving into the bush with Mal's shot whistling over his head! Mal backed away into the woods finding shelter behind a tree.
"Who the hell are yuh?" Dales' voice came from far away.
"The undertaker," Mal shot back. "I came to bury you."
"More'n you have tried and failed," Dales replied. "And you ain't so good as some that came before and died tryin.' You kin to someone I done?"
"Too bad. Well, yuh'r gonna be joinin' your friend soon."
"Unlikely," Mal said, moving as he spoke in case a shot came toward the sound of his voice. But none did. Dales was too shrewd for that.
"Oh well," Dales said from yet another position. "Guess you'll just be one more notch on the old pistol."
He was too calm, Mal realized. Too confident. Mal moved and ducked under a bush, taking off and leaving his boots and socks there and moving on bare feet. Why was Dales so sure of himself? What did he have up his sleeve?
And then Mal knew. Dales was not alone!
He squatted behind a thick dark bush and closed his eyes, listening intently. For a while he heard nothing at all.
"Purty quiet over there," Dales said. "Whatsa matter, you skeered?"
Mal said nothing, just listened. Then he heard the cracking of a small twig as it was stepped on. Not more than twenty feet from where he squatted.
Then there was a shadow where there had been none. A form filled the shadow. A man, short and stocky, holding a pistol extended.
Mal let the man take two steps past him, then stood and struck the man on the back of the head with the butt of his rifle. The man collapsed and Mal caught him in one arm, lowering him silently to the ground. He disarmed the man and used the man's belt to bind his hands behind his back, taking off the man's boot and stuffing one smelly sock into the man's mouth as a gag. Then he rolled the man under a thick growth of bushes out of sight.
"Yuh still out there?" came Dales' voice. "Best be sayin' your prayers."
Mal moved around a small stand of aspen toward the voice, moving carefully as to make no sound. He thought he had pinpointed Dales' location but when he got to where he could see that spot, there was no one there!
He heard the horse moving away at a gallop.
Damn it, he thought, so close. He went back to where he had left the man tied and dragged him out of the brush. He slapped the man across the face a few times until he came to. The man's eyes were wide and angry, but he calmed down when the pistol was put into his face.
"Where would Dales be going?" Mal asked, pulling out the gag.
"I ain't talkin,' the man hissed. "Ain't feared of you."
Mal sighed, stood up and shot the man in the knee, stepping back as the man screamed and rolled onto the ground, his hands still bound. This was getting tiring, Mal thought to himself. When would they learn.
"Right," he said when the man had stopped swearing. "Now the other knee." He pointed the gun at the man's good knee.
"Jeez, no!" the man exclaimed. "I'll talk!"
"Now wouldn't that have been a lot smarter when I first asked?" Mal queried. "Where would Dales be going?"
"He'll go back to his cabin on the mesa up there," the man said, pointing in the general direction. "But by the time you get there he'll already be long gone. He leaves things so he can up and run at the drop of a hat, and by now he's nearly at the cabin. You'll never get there in time."
"Where will he go?"
"Don't know," the man hissed, the pain increasing. "He don't trust no one. But I think he's got other cabins here and there."
"Who are you?"
"I just take care of the cabin and the horses and such when he's gone and I back him up when he comes to check on notes stuffed in the tree. I'm just his backup. I ain't killed no one. Not never."
"Well, Mr. Backup, I suggest you get that bleeding stopped and get out of here. I'm going to the cabin and if I see you near it I'll finish you off."
Mal backed away and headed to where he had left his horse and mule. He followed Dales' tracks and rode up the mesa a half-hour later, knowing he would be too late to catch the man but knowing he had to check it out. He rode careful, still concerned about Dales ambushing him, but he thought it more likely the man would simply vanish.
He was right. Gun drawn, he circled the cabin before going in but there was no one there. Drawers had been hastily opened and emptied and there were no horses in the corral out back.
With nothing better to go on, Mal began a detailed search of the cabin, conscious of stepping in front of the two windows and barring the only door shut. Despite the small size of the cabin it took him more than an hour to go through all the drawers, cupboards and such, and in the end, he was rewarded.
He found two envelopes that had fallen behind a drawer in a cupboard. One was addressed to Stocker Parnell in the town of Porter Crossing. It was empty. It might mean nothing, it might mean something but it was the next step in what had been a three-year search. The other contained almost six hundred dollars in bills and Mal kept that. It would be ironic that Dales' own money would permit Mal to continue his pursuit. Dales must truly have been in a rush to go.
He ate from the ample supplies in the cabin. He also took a brand-new Colt he found in one cupboard, ammunition and a few other supplies, knowing Dales would not be coming back here unless he killed Mal, and Mal had prepared for three years not to let that happen.
He had studied investigative techniques. He had worked on gun skills. He had learned how to track. And most important, he had learned the value of patience and persistence. So now, everything he needed packed, he got into the saddle and began to track Jeb Dales for what he hoped was the final time.
He knew that when men ran they first went for distance and then began to try to hide their trail. And so it began with Dales, the tracks easy to see. This continued for the next few hours. Then Dales began to be more evasive but he was still more interested in distance than in the trail he was leaving behind, for Mal had little difficulty following it.
A day later the trail disappeared, but he could see that it was heading in the general direction of Porter Crossing. His luck might be changing, he thought, but he tried not to be too hopeful. That could get him over-confident, and overconfidence could be fatal, he had learned.
About noon he spotted a haze of smoke to the east, then a thin pencil line, and thought it must be a farm or small ranch. Perhaps he could pay for a meal and feed for the horse and mule. He looked to the sky. There was no sign of impending rain that would wash out Dales' trail, so he angled toward the smoke.
It was a small farm, with yellow and brown fields in view beyond the small cabin and sizable barn.
He rode into the open yard and tied the grey to a small hitching post, then went over to the cabin and knocked on the door. A couple of minutes later it was opened by a woman that Mal took to be in her forties. A nice-looking woman, he thought, with two kids standing behind her that appeared to be in their early teens. But what Mal noticed right away was that the woman was bruised. There was one on her cheek, another on her forehead and bruises on each upper arm as if they had been squeezed.
"Ma'am," he said, "who did this?"
She swallowed and shook her head. The kids looked away.
Mal heard the barn door open and turned to see a man coming toward him. He was stocky, muscular and had a mean look about him. Mal walked down the single step to meet him, a smile on his face. As the man approached, Mal suddenly hit him square on the jaw, dropping the man unconscious to the ground.
Turning, he touched his hat toward the woman. "If you'll excuse me, ma'am, he and I have to have a chat. What's his name?"
"William," she said in a soft voice. "Please don't make him angry."
Mal grinned, bent down and picked the man up and slung him over his shoulder in one smooth move. Then he headed for the barn.
He tied the man's feet with rope, tossed it over a high beam and lifted the man to hang upside down in the middle of the barn.
Then he went outside to where the woman was standing on the porch.
"Ma'am, if you like I'll take you and the kids to the nearest town. I can even give you enough money to tide you over till you decide what to do."
She shook her head. "This is our home," she said. "He's mostly a good man except when things go wrong or he's into the drink. Please don't hurt him."
Mal nodded. "Alright, then, I'll just have a friendly chat with him. Maybe remind him of his manners and how to treat folks."
He returned to the barn, splashed water on the man's face and waited, sitting on a stool in front of him. William came to, sputtering from the second dousing of water, cursing until he realized his predicament. Then he became quiet and his eyes widened as he looked at Mal.
He opened his mouth to speak but Mal put up a hand to silence him.
"I'll talk and you'll listen, William," he said. "Now I told your wife I'd take her and the kids away from here and give them travelling money, but for reasons that pass my understanding she wants to stay with you. She says you're a good man, mostly, but not so much when you drink. So, William, here's the deal. I'm on my way to kill a man. He's a really bad man and he deserves killing and I'm going to kill him. Then I'll be coming back this way and I'm going to stop here and check on things. If that woman has a bruise on her, even a scratch, or looks like she's even a little bit unhappy, then William, I'm going to string you up again and I'm going to skin you alive, one inch at a time."
Mal held up his big knife and for emphasis poked the tip of William's nose until a small bubble of blood appeared.
"You need to be a whole lot better man, William, to deserve such a nice farm and that wife and kids of yours. And you have to stop drinking, right now. If you understand what I've said, just nod your head."
"Fine," Mal said. He got up, turned and left the barn.
The woman was still standing on the stoop.
"William and I have an understanding," Mal said. "He's going to work hard to do better and I told him I'm coming back this way in a little while and I'll be checking how you and the kids are doing. And I will. I left him strung up by his ankles, and he's fine hanging there for a little while. You can decide when you want to let him down, but he might do with some short time of reflection. If you like, you can tell him I ordered you to leave him for a particular stretch of time if that makes it easier for you."
The smile was brief but warm. "I believe I'll make a cup of tea," she said, turning to the door. The she looked back, right into his eyes. "Thank you."
He touched his hat. "My pleasure, ma'am. Have a nice day. I'll be seeing you again before too long. I promise."
He rode off. Well, he thought, there was no meal, but it was a satisfying stopover. He wondered how long she would leave William hanging. And if William believed Mal would return, because Mal would keep his word.
He lost and found Dales' trail a number of times but he was still heading toward Porter Crossing. Two days later he rode into town. He put the up animals at the livery stable, paying for feed and care. Then he ambled down to the barber shop for a shave, haircut and bath. He put on clean clothes from his saddlebags and arranged for the others to be laundered.
As far as he knew, Dales had never seen him because he had spoken to Dales from hiding. On the other hand, he had only the briefest look at Dales before Dales ducked into the bushes on him. They were about even on that score. However, Dales did not know Mal Peterson's name, but Mal suspected Dales went by Stocker Parnell when in Porter Crossing. At least Mal hoped he did.
Then he remembered the horse's tracks. There had been a couple of things about them that had stood out. Over the next couple of hours, he checked the horses at the livery stables but found nothing helpful. Then he wandered the main street, chatting with the bartender, the merchant at the general store and a couple of cowpunchers lounging on the boardwalk. That was when he hit pay dirt.
"Yuh missed a good fight last night in the Half Moon," one of them chuckled. "Dude just into town beat the tar out of two local boys who was teasin' him."
The other cowboy nodded. "That there Parnell gave 'em a whuppin', alright."
"Parnell?" Mal asked innocently. "Would that be Stocker Parnell?"
"Think so," one said. "That was the name he gave the marshal."
"He was passing through?"
"Naw, he comes and goes. He's got a cabin over west of here up on Smiling Mesa, I think. But mostly he's away working on the railroad and only gets here time to time. Least that's what he told the marshal. Dunno if it was true."
A little more casual conversation and a couple more beers bought for the two men and Mal knew the location of the cabin on Smiling Mesa. A half-hour later, leaving the mule in the livery, he was on the grey and heading west.
Stocker Parnell sat near the fire reading from a newspaper he had picked up in town. The early morning fire was comforting in the cold September morning, with thin ice already on the water in the well bucket on the coldest of mornings. He sipped his coffee and finished off the bacon and beans. Then he cleaned his dishes, pulled on a coat and headed out to feed his two horses.
He was pulling the bucket out of the well when the voice stopped him.
"Like to see a man who's not afraid of a little hard work."
Dales held the bucket very still but did not turn around.
"So, is it Dales or Parnell?"
"Parnell. Can I put this bucket down and turn around?"
"If you're real careful, and with your arms held away from you."
Parnell put the bucket down slowly and turned, keeping his arms away from his coat. He looked carefully at the man who stood some ten feet from him. Tall, muscular, deep grey eyes and a steady hand that held a Colt.
"You been persistent," Parnell said, shrugging. "Got to give you that."
"Three years," Mal said casually, "but it's been worth it. Here we are."
"So, you gonna take me in?"
Mal shook his head. "Wouldn't really do much good, would it? There's no hard evidence linking you to all those killings. Even that lawyer Barlow wouldn't know you to see you and I suspect he's long gone and on the run. So taking you in to the law isn't worth the time or effort."
"Then . . ."
"Exactly," Mal said and shot him twice in the chest. Parnell grunted almost involuntarily, his eyes suddenly wide, and then fell back against the frame of the well before tumbling to the ground.
Mal Peterson checked to be sure the man was dead. He found a shovel in the small shed and dug a grave far away from the cabin. He dug it deep, tumbling the body into it and covering it up with dirt, then stones and brush. There would be no marker and soon no sign of the grave itself.
It was over. The three-year pursuit was done. He felt little satisfaction and no elation. It had been long and hard and in those three years he was sure others would have fallen victim to Jeb Dales. But no one else would.
He checked the cabin and found another thousand dollars that he added to his wallet. He found a couple more pistols and a brand-new rifle in a boot and took those as well. There was nothing more that he wanted. He took Dales' two horses, neither branded, as they were fine animals.
Now he would take some time to determine his path from this point on and in a couple or three weeks he would wander back to check on that farm family and make sure William was behaving himself.
Might even get a meal this time.