THE SHOT NOT TAKEN . . .
THE IMMORTAL COWBOY
This is respectfully dedicated to the “American Cowboy.” His was the saga sparked by the turmoil that followed the Civil War, and the passing of more than a century has by no means diminished the flame.
True, the old days and the old ways are but treasured memories, and the old trails have grown dim with the ravages of time, but the spirit of the cowboy lives on.
In my travels—to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona—I always find something that reminds me of the Old West. While I am walking these plains and mountains for the first time, there is this feeling that a part of me is eternal, that I have known these old trails before. I believe it is the undying spirit of the frontier calling me, through the mind’s eye, to step back into time. What is the appeal of the Old West of the American frontier?
It has been epitomized by some as the dark and bloody period in American history. Its heroes—Crockett, Bowie, Hickok, Earp—have been reviled and criticized. Yet the Old West lives on, larger than life.
It has become a symbol of freedom, when there was always another mountain to climb and another river to cross; when a dispute between two men was settled not with expensive lawyers, but with fists, knives, or guns. Barbaric? Maybe. But some things never change. When the cowboy rode into the pages of American history, he left behind a legacy that lives within the hearts of us all.
The homestead wasn’t much. A cabin, a barn, and acres of corn.
Twilight had turned the sky slate gray when the three men drew rein on a low rise to the west. The tallest leaned on his saddle horn, his green eyes narrowing. “What do we have here?” His wide-brimmed brown hat and vest were caked with the dust of many miles. On his right hip in a triple-loop holster was a Remington with walnut grips.
“Nothin’ much,” said the rider on his right. Short and stocky, he hadn’t washed his hat and store-bought duds in a year of Sundays. Grime darkened his stubble. He pulled at his left ear where the lobe had been before he lost it to a Ute arrow and frowned. “Just another sodbuster.”
The last rider always wore black clothes to match his dark skin. It made him hard to see at night, which came in handy when people were trying to put lead into him. “Sodbusters got food,” he said. “Sodbusters got watches and rings.”
“That they do, Lute,” the tall rider agreed, and gigged his roan. “What say we go invite ourselves to supper?”
“Ah, hell, Dunn,” the short man said. “We’ve got grub.”
“You turnin’ soft on us, Tucker?” Dunn asked, giving him a sharp glance.
“You know better,” Tucker said. “I was just hopin’ to go a ways before we got the law after us again.”
“We do this right, they won’t be.”
A yellow dog barked as they approached and the cabin door opened, framing the farmer. Skinny as a rail, he wore a loose-fitting homespun shirt and bib overalls. “Who’s there?” he hollered. In his hands was a shotgun, and he wagged it menacingly.
“Look at him,” Dunn said, and laughed a cold laugh.
“Sheep come in all sizes, don’t they?” Lute said.
“Don’t let on,” Dunn warned. “You be friendly until I say it’s time not to be. The same with you, Tucker.”
“When do I ever cause you grief?” Tucker replied.
“You know better,” Dunn said. “You ever did, you’d have a window in your skull before you could blink.”
“You never threaten Lute like that,” Tucker said.
“Lute and me been together a good long spell,” Dunn said. “We’re like peas in a pod, him and me. There’s nothin’ we like more than snuffin’ wicks and helpin’ ourselves to what other folks have.”
“I know that,” Tucker said.
The farmer stepped out and raised his shotgun to his shoulder. “Who are you and what do you want?” he called out.
“Friendly cuss,” Dunn said so only Lute and Tucker heard. Then, raising his voice, he yelled, “We’re plumb friendly, mister. Just passin’ through. We’d be grateful for some food and coffee if you have any to spare.”
“That’s close enough,” the farmer said, putting his cheek to the shotgun. “A man can’t be too careful these days.”
Drawing rein, Dunn smiled and held his hands up, palms out. “Didn’t you hear we’re friendly?”
“You seem to be,” the farmer said.
Dunn gazed about them. “Nice place you have here. Didn’t expect to find a farm this far from anywhere.”
The farmer lowered the shotgun but only partway. “I’m James. James Larn. Out of Springfield.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Dunn said. “These are my pards, Lute and Tuck. Tuck is short for Tucker and Lute for Luthor.”
“Gents,” James Larn said.
“How about that food?” Dunn said, and patted his stomach. “Would you happen to have any to spare? We’re low on supplies and haven’t hardly ate in two days.”
“We can pay you,” Tucker quickly said. “Not much, mind. But I have a dollar and it’s yours.”
James Larn let the shotgun’s muzzle dip toward the ground. “Shucks, we’d feed you for free, but I won’t say no if you want to give us that dollar.”
“We?” Dunn said.
“My wife and my boy are inside,” Larn said, switching the shotgun from his hand to the crook of his elbow. “Fayette is my missus. The boy ain’t but a few months old and we can’t make up our minds what to name him.”
“Can’t wait to meet them,” Dunn said. Swinging down, he let the reins dangle and stretched.
“Been on the trail awhile, have you?” Larn asked.
“Feels like forever,” Tucker said. He dismounted and scratched at his stubble. “What is that I smell?”
“Soup,” Larn said. “Potato soup, to be exact. With carrots and peas. We ate the last of our meat a couple of days ago. I’ve been meanin’ to go huntin’ but haven’t had the time.”
“Soup is great,” Tucker said. “A bowl would do me right fine.”
“I usually have three or four,” Larn said.
“As thin as you are?”
“I could eat five meals a day and not gain a pound,” Larn boasted. “It’s just how I am.”
Lute alighted and wrapped his reins around his saddle horn. Turning, he took a step, but the farmer held out his hand.
“You’ll have to eat out here, I’m afraid,” James Larn said.
Dunn was swatting dust from his shirt and stopped. “Why’s that? He’s as hungry as we are.”
“Likely so,” Larn said, “but he’s not the same color.”
“Well, now,” Dunn said. “You’re one of those who doesn’t cotton to blacks, I take it?”
“It’s not me so much,” Larn said. “My wife is a mite finicky about who she lets inside.”
“So she’s one of those?” Tucker said.
“Don’t think poorly of her,” Larn said. “She lost her grandpa to some colored soldiers back during the War Between the States, and to this day she can’t look at a black without gettin’ all teary-eyed.”
The female of the place chose that moment to emerge, holding an infant bundled in a cloth. Only the baby’s face poked out. “How do you do, gentlemen?”
Tucker gave a slight start. “Mrs. Larn. That’s a cute sprout you’ve got there.”
James Larn said with fatherly pride, “He hasn’t given us a lick of trouble. Doesn’t cry a lot or keep us up nights, or nothin’ like that.”
“Good for him,” Tucker said.
Dunn came over and smiled at the baby. “Look at him. Some say babies are cute, but I’d never want one of my own.”
“Never say never,” Fayette Larn said. “If my pa taught me anything, it’s that each day brings its own surprises.”
“Listen to you, ma’am,” Dunn said. “But ain’t it the truth?” He motioned at Lute. “Which reminds me. Your husband told us you’d rather our friend here should stay outside. I’d take it as a favor if he could come in with the rest of us.”
“I’m sorry. No,” Fayette said. “It would bring back painful memories. I’ve shed enough tears over my grandpa. He was near and dear to me as a person can be.”
“Lute is my pard,” Dunn said.
“I’m sorry. I can’t help how I feel.”
“Makes two of us,” Dunn said.
Tucker glanced sharply at him, then said to the woman, “The war was more than twenty years ago, ma’am. I should think you’d be cried out by now. Can’t you make an exception in our case?”
“Some sorrows run too deep,” Fayette said. She mustered a smile for Lute. “Nothin’ personal, you understand, mister?”
Lute didn’t say anything.
“Did you hear me?” Fayette asked.
“He heard you, ma’am,” Dunn said. “Didn’t you, Lute?”
“I heard her,” Lute said.
James Larn took his wife’s arm and ushered her indoors, saying, “Come on in, gents. The soup will be a few minutes yet and we can get better acquainted.”
The cabin’s furnishings were as plain as the occupants. In addition to an oak table and chairs, a rocking chair sat by the stone hearth. A bear-hide rug lay on the floor and the skin of a bobcat hung on a wall.
“Nice home you have here, missus,” Tucker said.
“Shucks, it’s nothin’ special,” Fayette said. “But it’s ours, free and clear, and that counts for something.”
Nodding, James Larn leaned his shotgun against the wall. “Or it will be once we’ve paid it off.” He claimed the chair at the head of the table. “Have a seat, fellers. Make yourselves comfortable.”
“Don’t mind if we do,” Dunn said.
Tucker couldn’t take his eyes off the bundle in Fayette’s arm. “A baby, by golly. I hardly ever get this close to one.”
“Folks have babies all the time,” James Larn said.
“We haven’t run into any with a tyke as little as yours,” Tucker said. “Kids, yes. But we’ve been lucky with no babies.”
“What a strange thing to say,” Fayette said, bending to kiss the baby’s cheek. “That’s not luck. Babies are the sweetest darlings on God’s green earth. Just holdin’ one makes a body feel good.”
Tucker looked across the table at Dunn, whose face might as well have been chiseled from granite. “A baby changes everything.”
“I don’t see what,” Dunn said.
Fayette laughed. “That’s only because you’ve never been a papa. Trust me. When a baby comes into your world, nothin’ is ever the same. Your whole life is rearranged forever.”
“I like mine as it is.”
James Larn held out his hands. “Why don’t you give him to me, hon, so you can ladle out the soup when it’s done?”
“It almost is.” Fayette gently deposited the baby in her husband’s arms and went to the big-bellied stove.
Tucker sniffed, and beamed. “Sure smells good, Mrs. Larn. I can’t recollect the last time I had home cookin’.”
“It’s just soup,” Fayette said.
Dunn leaned back in his chair, tilting it so it balanced on its back legs. “How long have you been farmin’?”
“Going on three years this fall,” James Larn answered. “Hard to believe. Time flies so damn fast.”
“No cussin’,” Fayette said.
“Got any neighbors hereabouts?” Dunn asked.
“Not for five to six miles,” Larn said. “We hankered to be off by ourselves where we can do as we please.”
“You did,” Fayette said while stirring. “I’d have been fine closer to Springfield or some other town.”
“I like my privacy,” Larn said.
“I miss going to a general store or a dress shop. I miss talkin’ with other ladies.”
Larn grinned and winked at Tucker and Dunn, then said to his wife, “You’re female. You can’t help missing it.”
“My ma had her own millinery shop years ago,” Tucker revealed. “Worked herself to the bone. Dawn till dusk, six days a week. She’d even sneak in to work on Sundays. To tell the truth, she was the hardest worker I ever knew.”
Dunn stared at him.
“What?” Tucker said.
“I think that was fine of her,” Fayette said. “Too many gals these days would rather lie abed half the mornin’ or sit around doing next to nothin’.”
“See?” Tucker said to Dunn.
James Larn cooed to the baby and slowly rocked it back and forth. “My son will be a hard worker, just like me. I’ll leave him this farm, and by then have it paid off. He’ll have a better start than I did.”
“Now, now,” Fayette said. “We’ve done all right.”
Dunn gazed about their cabin. He fingered the edge of the table and watched Mrs. Larn commence to ladle the soup. “I never could savvy a life like this. Tied to one place. Doing the same thing day in and day out.”
“Workin’ land that’s yours gives you a warm feelin’,” Larn said, and tapped his chest. “Right here.”
“If you say so,” Dunn said.
Fayette brought over a wooden bowl filled to the brim, and a large wooden spoon, and set them in front of Dunn. “Guests first. Here’s yours. Now I’ll get your friend’s.”
“Don’t forget my pard outside,” Dunn said.
“I’m not likely to,” Fayette said. Smiling, she returned to the stove.
Dunn regarded the bowl and the spoon and placed his right hand on his hip. “I reckon we should get to it.”
“Somethin’ wrong with the soup?” James Larn asked.
“It smells good,” Dunn said, “but I’d rather get this over with and then eat. I can relax better not havin’ it to do after.”
“Not havin’ what to do?” the farmer asked.
“This,” Dunn said. He pulled his Remington and cocked it while pointing it at Larn’s face.
“The part I like best,” Dunn said.
Over at the stove, Fayette turned and gasped. “Here, now. We were nice and invited you in and now you’re fixin’ to rob us?”
“Who said anything about just rob?” Dunn said, and shot James Larn between the eyes.
That was when the door opened and in strode Lute. He had his revolver out, and without saying a word, he shot her.
Tucker saw the bundle in James Larn’s limp hands start to fall. Lunging, he caught it before it could hit the floor. “Got you,” he said, and smiled.
“Your turn,” Dunn said.
Tucker’s smile faded. “What?”
“I did the husband and Lute did the wife. Now it’s your turn.”
“You want me to kill the baby?”
Dunn cocked his revolver. “I don’t say things twice.”
Sweetwater got its name from Sweetwater Creek. The old trappers called the creek that because the water was always clear and cold. Fed by runoff, it flowed in years when there was snow. And in Wyoming, winter and snow were synonymous.
Sweetwater boasted sixty-four souls. That was meager as populations went, but Sweetwater also boasted a saloon and a bank and other businesses, plus its own town marshal.
Fred Hitch was getting on in years. His hair was gray, his mustache salt-and-pepper, the lines in his face were too many to count. He had a gut that came from liking to eat more than he liked to get out and about. He also liked that in Sweetwater there wasn’t much for the marshal to do, so he got to spend most of his days at his desk doing what Fred did best: daydreaming.
Fred was in his chair with his hands folded over his belly and his chin tucked low, dozing, when the front door opened and the clatter of a passing buckboard woke him. He yawned and scratched himself and looked up. “What in tarnation? I must be dreamin’.”
His visitor came over to the desk. “I see a star on your shirt, so you must be the law in this two-bit town.”
“You have your nerve,” Fred said. Sweetwater might be of little consequence in the grand scheme of things, but it was his town and he didn’t like having it insulted. Especially by someone who didn’t look to be much over twelve years old and barely an inch over five feet tall.
“I have that and more,” the youngster said. “Are you the law dog or do you just take naps here?”
Fred studied the boy from head to toe and did it a second time because he couldn’t believe what he saw.
His visitor was all elbows and knees, with spindly arms and legs. A wool cap, the kind sheepherders favored, covered a mop of ginger hair. Bangs fell to the boy’s eyebrows. His eyes were the color of a mountain lake, his nose not much bigger than a button. His shirt and britches were store-bought and fit him poorly. Freckles decorated his cheeks and he had a cleft chin. “What are you lookin’ at?” the boy demanded.
Fred was looking at two things in particular. First, a deep scar that ran from below the boy’s left ear, along his jaw, almost to the cleft. A knife had done that, unless Fred missed his guess. But it was the other thing that dumfounded him the most.
The boy had enough weapons for a regiment. In addition to two Colts in holsters, he was carrying a Winchester. A bowie knife, of all things, hung from a cord around his neck. Strapped to his back in its scabbard was a saber with the hilt jutting above one shoulder. As if all that wasn’t enough, a pair of derringers had been tucked under the boy’s belt on either side of the buckle and stuck out over the top.
“What in the name of all that’s holy are you supposed to be?” Fred asked.
“I’m me,” the boy said. “Tyree Johnson. Out of Missouri. Could be you’ve heard of me.”
“If I had I’d remember,” Fred said. “No one is liable to forget a walkin’ arsenal like you. How old are you anyhow?”
“Don’t matter,” Tyree said.
“It sure as St. Peter does,” Fred said. “You’re too young to be totin’ all that artillery and whatnot. Your ma and pa ought to be ashamed of themselves, lettin’ you go around like that.”
Tyree’s face clouded and his freckles seemed to darken. “My ma and pa are dead, and I’ll thank you not to mention them again.”
Fred Hitch rose and leaned on his desk. “I’m the marshal here, boy. You don’t tell me what to do. I tell you.”
Tyree Johnson set his rifle on the desk, leaned on the edge, and looked Fred in the eye. “You might want to watch the words you sling. I don’t take kindly to them as puts on airs.”
“Why, you little runt.” To say Fred was flabbergasted was an understatement. He’d never had anyone so young talk to him so boldly. “I’ll ask you again. What is with all that hardware? You playin’ at being a soldier?”
“I don’t play,” Tyree said. “Not since my folks were done in. All of this”—and he patted a Colt and a derringer and the bowie—“is what I use in my work.”
“Work?” Fred snorted. “What kind of job can you have?”
Tyree straightened and thrust out his cleft chin with the scar. “I hunt men for their bounty. Mostly bail jumpers but I’ll hunt most anyone.”
“The hell you say.”
“The hell I do,” Tyree said.
Fred shook his head in amazement. He closed his eyes and opened them again on the remote chance that the boy was a figment of his daydreams, but the boy was still there. “If this don’t beat all.”
“The sooner you get used to it,” Tyree said, “the sooner I can do what I came here to do.”
“Which is what, exactly?”
“I’m lookin’ for a man who is wanted in Cheyenne,” Tyree said. “I take him back, I get two thousand dollars.”
Fred whistled. The town paid him seventy-five dollars a month, plus ten percent of all fines. Two thousand was more than he’d earn in two years. “I should give up marshalin’ and become a bounty man.”
Tyree squinted at him and shook his head. “I don’t know as it would fit you. You don’t look very tough.”
Fred’s amusement evaporated like water on a hot rock. “That’ll be enough insults out of you. These antics of yours are over. You’re not no bounty man. You’re a boy, and boys don’t bounty-hunt.”
“That’s what you think.” Tyree pried at the buttons on his shirt, loosened several, and slipped a hand inside. The hand reappeared with a folded sheet of paper. “Read this. It’ll save time.”
Fred wondered if this might be some sort of joke. Maybe some of the townsmen had put the boy up to it. But come to think of it, he’d never seen the boy before, and he knew most everybody, at least by sight if not all their names. Suspicious, he unfolded the sheet and held it to the light from the window, but it was chicken scrawl. Opening the top drawer, he took out his wire-rimmed spectacles. “Need these to read,” he said self-consciously.
“I knew a fella wore a pair like that,” Tyree said. “He was blind as a bat when he didn’t have them on.”
“I’m not that old yet,” Fred said.
“You look old to me.”
Flustered, Fred held the paper closer. It was a letter of introduction, plainly written by an adult.
To Whom It May Concern,
Tyree Johnson has been in my employ for over a year.
He has brought back wanted men no one else could. I vouch for him despite his age and encourage you to give him all aid.
St. Louis, Missouri
Fred read it a second time and peered over it at the boy. “St. Louis?”
“That’s where I got my start. I’ve been to other places and now I’m workin’ out of Cheyenne. I carry that letter with me to show to folks who don’t believe I am what I am. Makes things easier.”
“If this don’t beat all. How old are you anyhow?”
“Fifteen,” Tyree said. “Sixteen come next March.”
“You don’t look it. Not even with that scar. How did you get it anyhow?”
“My letter,” Tyree said, holding out his hand. “I have a man to find.”
“Not so fast.” Now that Fred had a few moments to think, he was determined to learn more. “Let’s say I buy your story. Let’s say I believe you are what you say, those freckles aside. Who are you after and what makes you think he’s in Sweetwater?”
“No, you don’t,” Tyree said. “I tell you, you’ll bring him in yourself and take him to Cheyenne for the money.”
“I’m not out to steal your wanted man from you,” Fred said indignantly. The nerve of the boy, he thought. Little did the kid know that Fred’s philosophy on life could be summed up in three words: easy does it. He liked things to be simple. His goal each day was to get through it without any irritation. That might seem to be a silly philosophy for a lawman to have, but he’d found that if he spent most of his time in his jail and made it a point to show up on those rare occasions when there was trouble after the troublemakers had left, his life stayed peaceful, just the way he wanted it to be.
“Says you,” Tyree replied. “But I’ll keep it to myself if you don’t mind, and even if you do.”
“You have a lot of bark on you, boy, for someone of your tender years,” Fred scolded.
“The sooner you get over thinkin’ of me as a boy, the better it will be for both of us.” Tyree picked up the letter, carefully folded it, and slid it back under his shirt. As he did the buttons, he remarked, “I reckon I’ll ask around on my own and you can go back to sleep.”
“Don’t prod me,” Fred said. “This badge gives me the authority to do as I please, and it pleases me to keep you here until I learn all the particulars.”
“I’ve told you all I’m going to.”
“The name of the gent you’re after?”
When Tyree scowled, it deepened his scar and made him look older. “I reckon you have the right. But try to cheat me and there will be hell to pay.”
“You shouldn’t ought to talk like that,” Fred said. “Not at your age.”
“How old do you have to be to say ‘hell’?”
“The man’s name?” Fred said.
Fred smiled smugly. “We’ve got no one by that name in Sweetwater. Appears to me you’ve come all this way for nothin’.”
“He wouldn’t be usin’ his real name,” Tyree said.
“What did he do?”
“McCarthy strangled his wife and gutted the gent he caught her with,” Tyree said. “The judge set bail, McCarthy raised the bond, and the next day he skipped.”
“And whoever put up the bond sent you? He should be ashamed usin’ someone so young.”
“Don’t start on that again,” Tyree said. “Are you going to help me ask around or not?”
“I suppose I better,” Fred said reluctantly. “This is my town.” He stepped to a peg and took down his gun belt. The truth was, he’d rather stay there and nap. But it wouldn’t hurt to escort the boy around and at the same time show everyone he was doing his job. Circling his waist with the belt, he proceeded to buckle it on.
“You’re awful slow,” Tyree said.
“You hear that creakin’ in my joints?” Fred rejoined. Adjusting his hat, he strode to the door. “After you, boy.”
It was early afternoon, and at that hour of the day, with the summer heat at its worst, only a few souls were abroad. A dog lay on a porch, sleeping, and a hog rooted at the side of the general store.
“Your town is as lively as a cemetery,” Tyree said.
“I like it that way,” Fred said. “There hasn’t been a lick of trouble in months. Oh, we get a few squabbles and some pushin’ and shovin’ after too much liquor, but that’s all. There’s no killin’. No stealin’. Sweetwater is as law-abidin’ as they come.”
“Except for Tom McCarthy.”
“He’s not here, I tell you. Whoever gave you that notion was mistaken.”
“So you say.”
The boy headed down the street, and Fred followed. He was trying to be sociable and having it thrown in his face. He’d like nothing better than to send the boy packing. “I need to ask you something.”
“Ain’t that all you’ve been doing?”
Fred let that pass. “Why all the guns and the knife and that sword, for cryin’ out loud?”
“Those I’m after take me more serious.”
“You ever had to use any of that armament?”
“A few times.”
Fred suspected the boy was lying. No one that age went around shootin’ or knifin’ folks. He saw the boy stare at a sign to the feed and grain across the street and his lips moved as if he were reading it. “I have a nephew who’s about ten years older than you. Last I heard, he’s practicin’ dentistry down to Santa Fe. He likes a warm climate.”
“It’s pretty warm here,” Tyree said, and started toward the feed and grain.
“You lookin’ for some oats for your horse?” Fred guessed. When the boy didn’t answer, he coughed and said, “Listen. I don’t like what you’re up to, but it’s a free country. You like to go after bounty money, have at it. Seems like a dangerous way to make a livin’, though. From what I hear tell, those who skip on the law don’t go back willingly.”
“That they don’t,” Tyree said. “But nothin’ else I could do pays half as much.”
Fred snickered. “You aimin’ to get rich before your time?”
“No,” Tyree said. “I’m aimin’ to catch up to the sons of bitches who killed my ma and pa.”
“That’s why you do this?”
As they entered the store, a bell over the door tinkled.
“This here is owned by Hiram Bigelow,” Fred informed the boy. “Salt of the earth, Hiram is.”
“Is that a fact?”
They were almost to the counter when a rotund man came out of the back carrying a sack of seed. His florid face creased in a smile and he nodded at the marshal. “Fred. What brings you here this time of the day?”
“Hiram,” Fred said pleasantly.
Tyree had turned to a shelf as Hiram Bigelow came out, but now he turned back and placed his right hand on his right Colt. “Tom McCarthy,” he said. “I’m here to take you back to Cheyenne.”
“Like hell you are,” the salt of the earth said, and threw the bag of seed at them.
For Fred Hitch, the day was one astonishment after another. He’d known Hiram Bigelow for the better part of a year. Ever since Hiram bought the feed and grain from Sam Goodman. He’d never have imagined Hiram was a lawbreaker. The notion of Hiram being a killer was downright laughable. And yet there he went, running off in a panic.
The seed bag was heavy. It hit Tyree Johnson on the shoulder and knocked him back a couple of steps. Clawing at a Colt, he hollered, “Stop right there, mister!”
Hiram—or Tom McCarthy—did no such thing. He continued fleeing down the hall.
“Wait!” Fred yelled, but it was useless. McCarthy didn’t listen. Fred grabbed awkwardly for his own revolver and started to give chase, but Tyree suddenly grabbed him by the arm and yanked him out of the hallway. It was well the boy did, for the next moment the hall rocked to the boom of a shot and lead whizzed. “He’s shootin’ at us!” Fred exclaimed.
“They do that.” Tyree peered warily into the hall. “There’s a warehouse back there.”
Fred nodded absently. He’d been into the back a few times. It was where Hiram—no, McCarthy—kept a lot of feed and seed and whatnot.
“Is there a back door?” Tyree asked.
“Of course,” Fred said. “Every place has a back door.” He would have liked to stand there where it was safe, but the boy broke into a sprint.
“Come on. We can’t let him get away.”
Fred followed reluctantly. He wouldn’t mind at all if McCarthy got away. The man had never done him any harm. For that matter, McCarthy had been a model member of their community since he arrived in Sweetwater. From what the kid claimed, that business in Cheyenne had been over McCarthy catching his wife with another man. Granted, strangling her and cutting open the no-account who trifled with her was going too far, but people did things in the heat of rage they’d never do otherwise. And McCarthy never struck him as a killer.
“Hurry up,” Tyree urged, dashing to a small mountain of grain bags.
Puffing, Fred joined him. No shots rang out. He considered that a good sign. Maybe McCarthy had ducked out the back door and they wouldn’t have to swap lead.
The kid raised his voice. “Tom McCarthy! Throw down your six-shooter and give yourself up. All I want is to take you in.”
From somewhere deeper in the maze of stacks and crates and piles came a mocking laugh. “That’ll be the day, boy.”
Forgetting himself, Fred said, “Hiram? What’s gotten into you? Do as he wants so no one need get hurt.”
“I let him take me, they’ll put me on trial and I’ll be hanged or sent to prison for the rest of my life.”
“You don’t know that,” Fred said. “You could be let off. They have to prove you did the crime.”
“That won’t be hard,” McCarthy said bitterly. “They found me standing over the bodies with the knife I used.” He paused. “My best friend. And he was carrying on with my wife behind my back.”
“I’m sorry for you, Hiram. I mean Tom,” Fred said. “I’ll come testify if you want. Say as how you never once broke the law in Sweetwater and were a credit to the town.”
For a bit McCarthy didn’t answer. Then he said, “That’s damn decent of you, Hitch. You’re not as worthless as I thought.”
“I beg your pardon?” Fred said.
“Why do you think I settled here? That first day I rode in and you came over and introduced yourself, I saw right away that as a lawman, you were pitiful. You weren’t ever likely to figure out the truth. So I gave you a fake name and started this store.”
Fred was shocked. “You thought that poorly of me?”
“Hitch, everybody does.”
“I never,” Fred said. Here he thought he’d been doing a fairly fine job. So what if he didn’t actually do much? There wasn’t much to do.
“I won’t let you take me,” McCarthy vowed.
Fred glanced at the boy to ask what they should do—but the boy wasn’t there. He’d crept off while they were talking. “Tyree?” he whispered.
“What’s that?” McCarthy said.
Fred inched an eye past the sacks. The place was too dark to see much. There were only a couple of small windows and they were high up. “Tom, I wish you would reconsider.”
A revolver thundered.
Fred drew back, thinking that McCarthy was shooting at him. But no, more shots banged, and he realized the kid and McCarthy were in a gun duel. He heard McCarthy cry out and the stamp of pounding boots. Then a rectangle of light spilled across the floor.
“He’s hightailin’ it,” the kid shouted.
Fred moved around the sacks in time to see Tyree Johnson bolt out the rear door. “Damn him anyhow,” Fred said, and went after him. The harsh flare of the sun made him squint. He looked right and left but didn’t see either of them. Relieved, he was about to turn and go back through the store to the front when the kid popped out of an alley and beckoned.
“What are you waitin’ for? This’ll be easier if it’s both of us.”
Fred’s idea of “easy” didn’t include being shot at, but he dashed into the alley, puffing worse than before.
“You are awful out of shape,” Tyree remarked, running smoothly.
“Don’t worry about me,” Fred said. He wouldn’t admit it, but this was the most exercise he’d had in a coon’s age. “Where did he get to?”
“The main street.”
“He could be anywhere by now.” Fred sought to discourage pursuit. “We might as well go back to my office.”
“You do what you want, old man,” Tyree said, running faster, “but I’m no quitter.”
“Well, hell.” Fred wished he didn’t have to follow him. He’d never counted on something like this happening. Not in Sweetwater.
Main Street was deserted. A few faces peeked from windows, but most people had the sense not to show themselves when lead flew.
The boy was looking to the right. “I bet he’s makin’ for the stable. Does he keep a horse there?”
“Not that I know of,” Fred said.
“He’ll steal one, then,” Tyree said. “But he’ll want to saddle it first, and that will slow him some.” Tucking low, he ran on. “Let’s go.”
Fred was tired of the boy giving him orders. He was the law. He was the grown man. He should be telling the kid, not the other way around.
The stable doors were wide-open, and nothing moved inside. The stable man, Chester, was nowhere to be seen.
Fred hoped McCarthy hadn’t harmed Chester. Once a week he and Chester played checkers. And on occasion they’d claim a table at the saloon and pass a bottle back and forth. Chester was the closest thing to a best friend he had.
Zigzagging, Tyree Johnson reached the stable and put his back to the wall. He was careful, that boy, and knew all the tricks.
Fred tried zigzagging, but his knees didn’t like it. When he reached the wall, he sagged against it and wheezed.
“Are you going to die on me?” Tyree asked.
“Ha,” Fred said. He didn’t think the boy was the least bit funny.
“Try to keep up.” Instead of going in, Tyree ran to the corner and on around the side.
“I should have been a store clerk,” Fred grumbled. He’d considered that in his younger days. But the notion of toting tin held more appeal. He used to daydream about epic shooting affrays with hordes of outlaws. But that was then, and this was now. The young often held foolish notions. The old knew better.
Fred hastened after him. He remembered the corral out back. It would be easy for McCarthy to go into the tack room and help himself to a saddle blanket, saddle, and bridle.
Tyree sprinted to the far end. He looked out, glanced over his shoulder at Fred, and grinned.
Struggling to breathe, Fred came to a halt and placed his hands on his knees.
“If you weren’t carryin’ so big a belly, you’d get around a lot better,” Tyree whispered.
“Go to hell,” Fred said.
“Shhh.” Tyree looked out again. “He’s tightenin’ the cinch. We caught him just in time.”
“You’re not going to shoot him, are you?”
“Only if he makes me. He’s worth more alive than dead.” Tyree cocked both Colts. “Quietlike, now, and we can take him by surprise.”
Fred was tired of that “we” business. But he stepped out when the kid did, and they quickly climbed the rails. McCarthy had his back to them and didn’t see them. Taking deep breaths, Fred pointed his Smith & Wesson.
Tom McCarthy was just letting down the stirrup on a chestnut. Turning, he reached for the reins. Tucked under his belt was a revolver. There was a red stain on his shirt, high on his right shoulder. The boy had winged him.
“Hold it right there,” Tyree bellowed.
Fred was going to add his own command, but he wasn’t given the chance.
Unlimbering his six-shooter, McCarthy barely had it out when Tyree Johnson fired.
And hit the horse.
The chestnut whinnied and reared, tearing the reins out of McCarthy’s hand. It sent McCarthy stumbling, but he recovered and sprinted into the stable just as Tyree fired both Colts.
“You missed him,” Fred said. He’d assumed that anyone who went around with as much armament as the kid wore would know how to shoot.
“I’m not Wild Bill Hickok,” Tyree said.
“Good thing,” Fred said. “He’s dead.”
“You stay here. I’ll make sure he doesn’t escape.” Tyree ran into the stable.
Annoyed at the turn of events, Fred jogged after him.
The poor chestnut was whinnying and running in circles and tossing its head back and forth. As near as Fred could tell from some scarlet drops, the slug had nicked it on the chest.
There was a commotion in the stable, and a shot.
Just what Fred needed. A gun war in the middle of town. A lot of folks were bound to be upset. It wouldn’t surprise him one bit if some of them complained to the mayor, who never had liked him. He could see the mayor using it as an excuse to claim it was time for a change in lawmen.
Fred couldn’t have that. He needed to stop this before it went any further.
The center aisle was littered with straw, and a pitchfork had been propped against a stall. Only two of the stalls were occupied, the horses wide-eyed with fright.
McCarthy wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
Tyree, though, was at the double doors, peering out the front. He looked back at Fred and gestured as if to say, “Where is he?”
Fred shook his head. How would he know? He went to call out but changed his mind. If McCarthy hadn’t gone out the front, it must mean he was hiding in one of the stalls and the kid had run right past him. Ducking, Fred slipped into the first. He realized he was holding his breath and let it out.
Up at the front, Tyree shouted, “McCarthy! Quit bein’ pigheaded. Give yourself up and you won’t be hurt.”
“Drop dead, boy.”
Fred stiffened. McCarthy’s shout came from a stall on the other side. Taking off his hat, he risked a peek and held his breath again when he spied McCarthy two stalls up, staring toward the front.
Fred debated what to do. If he was quick like the kid, he could rush McCarthy and maybe hit him over the head before McCarthy turned. But he wasn’t quick. He was slow as could be. If he tried rushing him, McCarthy could put two or three slugs into him before he reached the stall.
Fred pointed his Smith & Wesson. It would be child’s play to shoot McCarthy in the back. His finger tightened, but he couldn’t bring himself to squeeze all the way. Back-shooting just wasn’t in him. For that matter, shooting anyone wasn’t in him. He drew back, bowed his head, and closed his eyes. What good was a lawman who couldn’t shoot anybody? The answer was obvious. The lawman wasn’t any good at all.
Fred had never felt so worthless. He almost decided to get out of there while he still could and let the kid handle things alone. But no. That wouldn’t be right either. He was the one wearing a badge.
Opening his eyes, he stared at the Smith & Wesson. He wasn’t a gun hand. He hardly ever practiced. That old saw about not being able to hit the broad side of a barn—that was him. He holstered it.
Fred knew what he had to do. His mouth went dry and he broke out in a sweat. It was plumb loco. But he couldn’t see any other way. Jamming his hat back on, he took a deep breath and stepped into the aisle and over to the other stall.
McCarthy didn’t hear him until he was almost on top of him. Wheeling on his heels, McCarthy pointed his Colt at Fred’s head. “No, you don’t! I will by God shoot you dead.”
Fred Hitch had never had a gun pointed at him before. Not this close. His whole body went numb. His mouth refused to work. He stared into the muzzle that would end his life and was paralyzed with fear.
“What do you think you’re doing?” McCarthy said.
It broke the spell. Fred smiled and held out his hand. “I’ll take that smoke wagon, if you don’t mind.”
McCarthy was incredulous. He glanced down at Fred’s Smith & Wesson in its holster. “You damn fool.”
“This has gone far enough. One of you might be hurt. Plus, there are the folks in town to think of. I’ll have your gun, Hiram. Or, rather, Tom.”
“Like hell you will,” McCarthy said.
“What choices do you have?”
“How do you mean?”
The muzzle of McCarthy’s Colt dipped, and Fred breathed a little easier. No, he wasn’t a gun hand, but he could talk as good as anybody. People were always saying how he liked to talk and talk. He figured to use that instead of his revolver. “Let’s say you get away. Where do you go? What do you do?”
“I go somewhere else and start over.”
“Word will get out. The kid will go back to Cheyenne and tell whoever he’s workin’ for that you flew the coop. The marshal there will send out circulars. There’ll be a lot of new interest in you. And who knows? Two thousand dollars is a lot of money. It could be the kid won’t be the only one on your trail.”
“You’d have to go clear to Alaska. Or, worse yet, maybe take a ship to some foreign country. Is that what you want?”
“No,” McCarthy said grudgingly.
“Or let’s say you fight it out with Tyree. The only way you’ll stop that kid is to kill him, and then you’ll have three murders on your hands. Could be more bounty will be added. You could find yourself worth more than Jesse James ever was.”
“I doubt that,” McCarthy said skeptically.
“The kid wants to take you alive. But from what I saw in the corral, he’s a piss-poor shot. Maybe he’ll only wound you. Or cripple you. All it takes is a piece of lead in the wrong spot and you’ll have to use crutches for the rest of your days.”
“Damn you,” McCarthy said.
“I’m not done.” Fred firmed his resolve. “I’m taking you into custody myself. You can shoot me, but add a lawman to your string and every tin star from here to Texas will be out to bury you. Wherever you go, you’ll have to lie low. Changin’ your name again might help for a while, but you won’t be able to move about nearly as freely as you did here. Think about that a minute.”
McCarthy lowered his revolver to his side and sighed. “All of this because I lost my head.”
“We all do now and again,” Fred said, although now that he thought about it, he couldn’t recollect ever losing his so badly he’d strangle somebody.
“I loved her,” McCarthy said. “I truly did. When I saw her with the friend I trusted most in this world, it was like a red-hot spike was driven through my head. I don’t really remember much. When I came to my senses, I was standing there with the knife and the deed was done.”
“How is it you talk so nice?” Fred asked.
“I’ve always liked how you talk. You must be from back East somewhere. You never slur your words or mangle them like we do out West.”
McCarthy looked bewildered. “I have the biggest decision of my life to make, and you bring that up?” A slight smile tugged at his mouth. “Fred Hitch, you’re worthless, do you know that?”
“I try my best,” Fred said.
Tom McCarthy stared at his six-shooter, then slowly held it out. “Here. Before I change my mind.”
Fred took it and stepped back. “Kid!” he yelled. “It’s over. There’ll be no more shootin’.”
“I’m right here,” Tyree Johnson said, and glided out of the next stall. “I snuck up while you two were jawin’.” He trained his Colts on McCarthy. “I’m plumb surprised he let you persuade him.”
“Most folks aren’t really bad at heart,” Fred said. “Give them half a chance and they’ll come around.”
“Shows how much you know. There are bad men with hearts as hard as rock. They’ll send you to hell as quick as look at you, and that’s no lie. One day you’ll trust the wrong person and he’ll blow out your wick.” To McCarthy he said, “On your feet. We’ll hold you in the jail until I’m ready to head for Cheyenne.”
Squatting there in despair, McCarthy looked up at the rafters and his throat bobbed. “I suppose I have it coming.”
“I won’t tell you twice,” Tyree said.
Moving as slow as poured molasses, McCarthy stood and headed down the aisle, his posture that of a broken man.
“Poor fella,” Fred said, keeping a few yards between them in case McCarthy changed his mind about giving up.
“I heard that crack about me bein’ a bad shot,” Tyree said.
“Well, you are. You shoot at a man and hit a horse, that’s as poor as can be. Which reminds me,” Fred said. “I have to get word to the animal doc so he can tend to that horse. We’re lucky to have one in a town this small. He does undertakin’ on the side and makes fine coffins.”
“For the animals too?”
“You can cut out the sass.” Fred motioned at the boy’s belt. “Are you any better with those derringers? Or are they just for decoration?”