elbowcreek
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Killing Trail

Charles A. Gramlich

PART 1

Under a false dawn they dumped the girl in my yard. The shout of thudding hooves jerked me from sleep, Spencer to hand, and I made it out the door in time to see a shadowy clot of riders melt away up the hill above my ranch. The hooves had made me think rustlers, but a glance at the corral showed all three of my horses milling about.

Then I saw the pile of gingham lying on the dirt by the gate of the corral, and within the pile I found the girl. She looked dead, her face a mask of blood and with some savage wound in her chest, just below the heart, that had rusted the whole front of her dress. But when I got down beside her I could hear the faint whisper of

Western Wear at Sheplers 

her breathing and see the thin, pale steam of it in the morning chill. Dropping the Spencer, I got her up in my arms and rushed her into the house to my cot.

Lighting a lamp showed me the damage, and it was bad. The blood on her face was from a cut scalp and split lip, but the wound to her chest had been made by a bullet, with the gun pressed flush against her body when the trigger was pulled. The powder-burned gingham of her dress was part of her now, and though the bleeding had stopped for the moment it would surely start again if I tried to clean the wound. The nearest town was Broken Axle, maybe ten miles away. But they had no doctor there. Stopover was another fifteen miles further on, and, though they had a doc, I figured it would take more hours than this girl had left to get there by buckboard. She was going to die and all I could do was try to ease her passing.

Warming some water and wetting a rag, I started laving the girl's face clean of crusted blood. She had red hair, very pretty, and as I cleaned and looked I felt a sudden, sharp sickness roil in my stomach. "Laura," I said. "No, no. Please no."

The pleading didn't help. It was Laura Cody lying there. I hadn't seen her since Cheyenne, Wyoming, almost five years ago. She'd been fifteen and I a year older and full of mad at the world for taking my ma so young. Laura had liked me and I'd liked her. But her father had made it clear he wouldn't allow it, and when my own pa disappeared on a drunk I'd lit out further west for the Salt River Range to make my fortune--in one thing or another. I had no idea why Laura would have come here now.

"Laura." I called her name, hoping to cut through the fog of her stupor, to bring her around enough to find out who'd shot her, and hoping somehow that she wasn't as hurt as I thought.

"Laura!"

She stirred, moaned, then opened the shocking green eyes that had been her most dazzling feature as a kid. They still were, though the years had wrought other changes, had remade her completely into a woman of exceptional beauty. Even with her mangled lips she smiled when she recognized me, and that smile made something in my chest not work right.

"Boone Holland," she said. "I was coming...to see you. They--"

She coughed, and I got my arms under her shoulders and lifted a bit so she wouldn't choke on the blood that spilled over her chin. That blood was bright, frothy--the kind that comes out of torn lungs.

"It's all right," I said, trying to keep despair out of my voice. "Don't talk. I'm going to get you to a doctor."

Laura gave a tiny shake of her head. "No. I'll not make it. And you have to hear."

"Hear what?" I asked, hoping she wouldn't see what holding her like this was doing to my eyes.

"Hear...about. Royal Flynn. And dad."

"Flynn! What the hell?"

I'd known Flynn in Cheyenne, too. He was a gambler and occasional gunfighter who worked the saloons where my father drank. I'd never liked him; his jokes had been too cruel. And he'd beat my pa to a pulp once, for no reason I could see.

A few years back Flynn had moved into the Salt River Range and taken up the pretense of being a rancher. He'd put together some cattle and some smaller farms, most of which he'd won at cards, and he thought he was on the way to making an empire for himself. He wanted my stead, because it had a regular water supply and because it butted up against two of his other places. But I didn't play cards, and I'd refused the sell when he'd made an offer. Once he'd found out I was Tasker Holland's son, he'd stopped asking.

Laura took a breath then, to earn air for more talk, and though she winced with the pain of it she got out a rush of words.

"Mom died last year and a month ago dad decided to move us to Stopover. He said this land was growing fast. Needed a good lawyer." She smiled again a little. "I wanted to come myself. But I didn't know dad had been gambling, too. That he'd lost to Flynn in Cheyenne and had some deal about coming here to pay what he owed. We were on our way when..."

She swallowed, then choked again, coughing up blood that spattered like daubs of liquid red wax over my shirt. I wiped her mouth, told her once more not to talk, not to struggle. She didn't listen.

"Flynn wanted...me too. Not just dad's knowledge. I thought so. But didn't.know. Until. Last night. At his cabin...somewhere close."

She clutched my wrist tight, though how she had the strength I couldn't guess.

"He still has dad, Boone. There. You have to help...him."

"I will, Laura. I promise."

I leaned to kiss her forehead then.

"Why'd he bring you here, Laura? To my place?"

"He knew." Her eyes were too green as she watched me. I frowned. "He asked me last night to love him. I told him I couldn't. That I loved another." She licked paling lips. "He doesn't--"

She choked a third time; I was sure it was the last. But she found life from somewhere to say: "Nobody rejects Royal Flynn. He said that. Before he...before he--."

"Don't, Laura," I protested. "Don't say it."

"No!" Her breath burbled. "No rape. He tried. I fought. He beat...me. But I got his gun. Shot..."

She touched her chest, her own wound. Her last words sighed away and she passed. I think I cried. It didn't do any good.

PART 2

I buried Laura out back of the barn, up on the hill at a place the wildflowers would carpet come spring. Then I stoked my rage, buckled on my Colts, and picked up my Spencer from where it still lay near the corral. I saddled Ace, my best horse, and left the gate open so the other two could range. They, and the few head of cattle I had, would survive for a few days until I returned. I wasn't going to worry about not returning.

By midmorning I'd saddlebagged some coffee and grub and was ready to ride, jacketed against the autumn cold. I looked around once. Four years ago I'd stopped to bum a meal from the old man who owned this place. I'd ended up staying, and when the fellow died eight months later he left it to me free and clear. It had been a gift, better than the riches I'd thought I wanted at seventeen. And by now I'd worked it till it was mine. But it wasn't much when I stacked it against the life of a beautiful woman who was dead moments after letting me know she loved me.

"Let's go," I said to Ace. And we went. We went high. Into the mountains. I knew the cabin Laura had to have been talking about. On Widow Fork Creek. I'd hunted all around it. The story was that Flynn had picked it up for a song from a broke cowboy.

As I rode I was thinking about Flynn's reasons for dumping Laura on my property. I figured there was more to it than jealousy because she preferred me to him. Flynn knew me, from Cheyenne, from trying to buy my ranch, from other times when I'd showed him less respect than he thought he deserved because he cut a big swath with women, money, and guns. He didn't like me, but he knew me, knew I'd be coming for him myself because there was no way to prove him guilty by law. If he killed me, he'd surely find a way to take my land. And I was about to give him
an excuse for the killing by going after him with a Colt.

There was only one problem for his plan. I was sure he'd have men waiting to ambush me along the trails to his cabin. But a man who hunts to supplement a table fare of beans and hardtack learns well how to stalk his prey. Flynn was a collector who never really saw what he collected, and I knew the area around his cabin better than he did.

Two trails led into the valley of the Widow Fork. Trails for horses, that is. I took neither. Instead, I drop-reined Ace at a place where the grass grew tasty and took off cross-country on foot. By trail it was nearly twelve miles to the cabin from where I left Ace. Straight through on a hike it was about four, a fair slab of it vertical down the face of Cane Bluff to the banks of Widow Fork Creek. It was a climb I'd made before and by early evening I was nestled up against a fallen oak at the edge of the creek, watching Flynn's place and waiting for full dark. Soon enough, it came.

The area around the cabin had once been clear-cut, but Flynn hadn't bothered to keep it clear and there was considerable scrub brush. I went through that scrub, on my belly, moving a foot or two at a time. It took the better part of an hour to make it to a window where I could lift my head to scan the inside. Even through the heat-misted glass I could see three men seated at a table playing poker. With a clench of fists around the Spencer I recognized Flynn's flat-brimmed hat, though his face was turned down to look at his cards. I didn't see Laura's father, Hutton Cody.

From somewhere else in the room came a voice that had a grating, whiny edge to it. I couldn't make out the words but Flynn apparently didn't like them. He glanced up quickly from the cards he'd been dealt, and irritation was written across his usually handsome features.

"Leave him alone, Boren. You're supposed to be watching out front anyway."

"Aw, Boss," the whiny voice said. "I was just funnin'."

Flynn came half way out of his chair, his right hand a claw hovering over the butt of his pistol.

"I said leave him alone!"

The gambler was drawn as tight as wet leather dried in the sun. He was sweating; his cheek twitched. I'd never seen Flynn look anything but calm. I had to think his tenseness had to do with Laura, with the fact that she'd preferred a bullet to him.

I hoped so anyway.

"Sure, sure, Boss," the man called Boren said. "Whatever you say."

Flynn tapped one of the other players on the shoulder. "Keep an eye," he ordered. The man got up promptly, grabbed a shotgun from against the wall behind him and went toward the front of the cabin. Boren came to the table then, looking as much like a weasel as he had sounded. He was carrying a folding knife, which he closed and slipped into his pocket. Clearly shaken, he sat down and was dealt a hand. It was only a moment more before Flynn snorted and slapped his cards down open on the table.

Boren laughed. "Hell, you win again, Boss. Ain't no beatin' you tonight." Flynn only grunted, and as he raked in the pot and prepared to deal again I shifted position at the window to see more of the cabin's interior. Some past owner had cut a big cross in the front door for shooting through and the man with the shotgun stood looking out of it. I shivered a bit. If Boren had been doing his job and watching that window he might have seen me crawling up on the cabin.

Then I saw Hutton Cody and forgot the might-have-beens. Cody was tied to a chair and gagged, with a shallow cut across his cheek that I figured had been made by Boren's knife but which I'd chalk up against Flynn anyway. 

Laura's father was in his early fifties, about the same age my pa should have been, and when I'd known him before he'd been as straight and tall and thin as an aspen, but with the air of a dignified oak. Now his eyes, the color and brilliance of which he'd given to Laura, were dull and sick and his face looked hammered. Worse than the blood and abrasions, though, was the emptiness of his expression.

It looked like Cody knew about his daughter. I wondered if he blamed himself, for ever having dealt with the likes of Royal Flynn. I sort of felt like he SHOULD blame himself, but maybe there was still a little anger in me from having been told once upon a time that I wasn't good enough to mix my blood with his. I pushed those thoughts away. If I didn't try to help Cody now I'd be proving him right for those prejudices of long ago. While I was pulling at ideas like weeds as to what to do next, one of the outlaws, a big man with hair going silver over the ears, shoved back from the table and threw down his cards. "Cleans me out!"

Flynn chuckled. "There'll be more, Wagoner. Once we get Boone Holland's ranch."

I had no idea what Flynn was talking about. My ranch wasn't worth much in cash. But I didn't have time to think on it.

Wagoner strode to the door. "I'm gonna walk up on the rim, see if I can find Smoke or Hicks. See if they've had any sign of Holland. You're so sure he'll come."

"Don't worry about that," Flynn said. "Soon as he figures out who the girl is, he'll come. We left plenty of tracks for him."

My mind started clicking. They'd expected me to trail 'em, not for Laura to tell me about them. That meant, I hoped, that I was here earlier than they figured I would be.

Wagoner slipped into his coat and paused to roll and light a cigarette.

"I'll be back," he said.

Flynn waved him out. Boren tittered, started to say something.

"Shut up, Boren," Flynn said, not looking away from his cards. "And fetch us some coffee."

Wagoner tossed his burned match on the floor and picked up his rifle before stepping out on the front porch of the cabin into the darkness. I waited until he closed the door, then crept from the window to watch him as he stood for a moment, smoking his cigarette to the butt before flicking it away. Big as he was, his face looked gaunt, his eyes hollow. I wondered if there were any guilt in him over what had happened to Laura. Probably not, though from what I'd heard he was the best of a bad lot. As the man moved away from the cabin I followed him on a
hunter's silent feet. He paused beside the corral, empty at the moment with all the horses tucked away in the barn for the night.

"For two bits I'd saddle up and ride," Wagoner said.

He spoke aloud to the night, but it wasn't the night that answered, or that eared back the hammer on a Spencer behind him.

"That'd be the smartest thing you've done since you came west, Wagoner. Lose the rifle."

Wagoner froze, his hand lifting a little, holding the rifle out and away from his body before dropping it to earth.
"I'm guessing that you're Holland," he said. "But how do you know MY name?"

"I've been watching you boys slap cards for the last hour. I know each of your names. I even know what hands you've been playing." This wasn't strictly true but I could see no harm in adding to his nervousness. "And yes, I'm Boone Holland."

He was silent. He knew why I was here.

"Yeah," I continued. "I'm a friend of the girl you boys killed."

"You got it wrong there, Holland. I'd nothing to do with that."

"You were there."

"No." He shook his head. And his next words were rushed.

"I admit to helping bring her here. And her pa. But Flynn had me running errands into Broken Axle when everything happened. Go feel my horse's back. Where the saddle was. It's gotta be still warm. I couldn't of been here half an hour before you got here."

"Turn around, Wagoner."

The big man turned slowly to face me, hands away from his sides, his holster buttoned under his coat.

"Give me a chance, Holland. I'll ride."

"Why should I?"

"You ain't got a reason, and I can't think one up this fast, but I guess just because I'm asking."

I gave a very small chuckle, took a few steps toward him so he could see my eyes better.

"Unbuckle your gunbelt," I said.

With one hand he unbuttoned the lower half of his coat and stripped off his belt and pistol, letting them join his rifle in the dirt.

"I'm going to give you a chance, Wagoner. One chance. Not because I like you or believe you, but because I don't have any rope to tie you up with and a shot would bring attention. Get your horse and go. Leave your guns here and ride hard and fast. Ride a long way. And if you ever see me again... Well, let's just say, don't."

Wagoner looked at me a second, then turned on his heels for the barn. He took two steps and stopped.
"Even if you don't believe me, Holland, I wasn't there when Flynn...when he hurt the girl." He hesitated again. It seemed important for him to have me believe him. "I don't know what I would have done. But I like to think I wouldn't of stood for it." His words trailed off and he walked on.

I slipped my way back to the cabin's window. I did believe Wagoner. Not that it mattered now.

Ten minutes passed and I began to wonder if I'd misjudged the big man. I had his guns with me but he could have had a spare in the barn. I was considering naming myself a fool when the sudden pound of hooves broke sharp across the still night. I was watching through the window as Flynn came out of his seat, eyes quick and dangerous.

"It's Wagoner! The son of a bitch is running!"

Palming a pistol, Flynn bolted from the cabin. The man with the shotgun followed. But Boren hesitated at the door. I had no choice now. I'd not get another such chance. I shoved up the window and swung quickly through into the
room, the Spencer in my hands, barrel stabbed toward the door. Boren looked behind him at the noise, eyes going wide with surprise. He dropped his hand for the pistol at his side. I worked the rifle twice and the slugs smashed him back against the cabin wall, smashed him back and down, tearing splinters from the oak logs where the lead ripped through flesh.

The second man was on the porch and turned at the gunshots. He carried an old Greener 10-gauge, started to drag its barrel up. I shot him through the throat and he dropped like a sack of wet feed.

A quick glance showed me Hutton Cody. His eyes were open but full of void. He didn't look at me, and didn't even flinch when a bullet came skipping through the door to tear up splinters by my boots.

Not wanting to be trapped inside, I took a dive back through the window, rolling across brush into the shallow cover of some rocks that had once been gathered for a wall. I saw Flynn running for the barn and pumped two bullets his way. One of them knocked him sprawling, but he lurched to his feet again in an instant and dove through the dark mouth of the barn door. I reloaded, breathing hard.

As I started to think I had Flynn trapped, there came a splintering sound from behind the barn and I knew the outlaw had found a way out. Cursing, I took off running, reached the corral as the shadows of a horse and rider burst through a jagged opening at the back of the barn and took off up the main trail leading out of the valley. I raised the Spencer to my shoulder. But just then two other horsemen appeared on the trail above, no doubt the killers Flynn had left earlier as a welcoming party for me. The shooting must have brought them, and now one of them fired toward the cabin, clearly not seeing me in the darkness by the corral. I returned fire as Flynn reached them, scattering the black knot of them with four quick bullets. One shot drew a yelp of pain, and then the outlaws were gone up the hill, hoofbeats fading quickly.

I lowered the rifle, doubting that my enemies would be back any time soon. I'd fired at Flynn from the cabin and then from the outside only moments later. I figured he'd run because he thought there was more than one of me.

Walking to the front of the barn I looked at the place where one of my shots had knocked Flynn down. The heel of his boot was lying there all by itself in the dust. I picked it up with a curse and turned back toward the cabin.
 

PART 3

Two days after I'd shot it out with Flynn and his cronies I drove a wagon down the main street of Stopover. It was the Cody family wagon and Hutton Cody was lying in the back covered with blankets against the chill. He hadn't said a word, though I'd managed to get him to drink a little water and broth at our stops. I was worried about him. His skin was sallow, his face drawn gaunt. Whatever anger I'd felt for him had melted away in the face of what his daughter's loss had done to him.

After I saw Cody to bed in the local doctor's office I headed immediately across the street to the mercantile to pick up shells and grub and cold weather traveling gear. I was going after Flynn. He had Laura to pay for. And her dad. And maybe even my pa from years back. Flynn had land here and if I waited long enough he'd probably return. But I'd never been a man full of patience and I didn't want him to be able to plough the farm to his own liking for our showdown.

There were a few things I had to do before I left, though. First, I went down to the stage station and sent a package off to Cheyenne, Wyoming. A note was attached, addressed to Flynn, who I had a feeling might head back to his old stomping grounds once he left the Salt River Range. The note was short. It read: Royal,

I'll be coming for you now. The package is just a reminder of how close we've become. Boone Holland

In the package I put the boot heel I'd shot off him at Widow Fork. There was a nice big tear in the leather from a bullet that could have taken off his foot if it had been an inch higher. Of course, I couldn't be sure he'd ever get the package, but knowing the west I figured word would get around to him eventually. And besides making him mad, it might make him wonder just how crazy I was anyway. I figured leaving Flynn wondering was a good idea. The second thing I did was get a few day's rest and feed upAce on some corn so he'd have the strength for hard riding. It
was a killing trail I was headed out on, and it likely wouldn't be a short one. I hired a boy to look after my cattle and horses while I was gone.

On the morning that I saddled Ace for the ride I stopped by the doctor's office for a last look-see at Hutton Cody. He was sitting propped up in bed and I thought his color was a little better in the few places where he didn't have bruises. The doc said he'd been eating some, but he still wouldn't meet my eyes. I stood by the older man's bed and explained to him how I was going to hunt Flynn down and see the bastard hanged or dead. I told him I'd be back when it was over and take him to see Laura's grave, and would put up a headstone. I told him quite a few things, and when I finished I turned to go.

Cody spoke then, three words, though still he never looked at me.

"Be careful, Boone," he said.

PART 4

Royal Flynn rode a black horse with a white tail that stood nearly eighteen hands high. It had a distinctive hoof print, and when I missed Flynn in Cheyenne and half a dozen other places I started asking questions about the horse as well as the man. Seemed to me it might be harder to disguise the former than the latter. Everywhere I went I left word: Boone Holland is hunting Royal Flynn. Soon, the story of the hunt and the boot-heel-package had spread like ripples over a pond. Yet, Flynn didn't stop. He rode fast and rumors said he rode with two bad men beside him. I
couldn't believe he was scared of me, but I added that to the word I sent out, in hopes he would turn to face me. He didn't.

Then I heard whispers of the black horse and found his tracks outside a shanty town called Bold Acre. With a hot trail under me, I picked up the pace. Winter was swelling fast over the land and the creeks were full of ice in the mornings, but Ace and I kept coming.

Once we were ambushed and Ace saved me. He smelled them, or saw a glint that shouldn't have been there, and he shied off the trail so quick that the bullet meant for me tore up dirt instead. I had my Spencer out and was hunkered down behind a boulder for a fight when I heard the sound of fleeing hooves and knew I'd have to take up the trail again.

Yes, it was hard to believe Flynn was scared of me. I had no rep as a gunman. I'd had one fight at a trading post down in the Sierra Madres and had shot two men in it who were supposed to be salty. But no one knew I'd been involved. And though I'd killed a couple of Flynn's boys on Widow Fork Creek and shot him out of his boot, that hardly seemed enough to send a fellow like Flynn running. He'd killed five or six men it was said, several of them face to face.

I remembered the day Flynn had beaten my father with his fists. Ma, in the last year of her life then--though none of us knew it--had sent me to the saloon to fetch pa for supper. I was twelve, short for my age, and I'd come through the doors into the Bucket of Blood just as Flynn knocked dad down for the sixth time. I had an old penknife for whittling and I went after Flynn with it. He was in his mid-twenties then, big enough to collar me and slap me around as I lunged and lunged at him.

I remembered how an old buffalo hider who was supposed to be part Indian had said to Flynn: "That'un 'll kill you one day." I began to wonder if Flynn had taken that old comment seriously. It seemed silly to me and I knew I was grasping at straws to explain the outlaw's behavior. But gunfighters are notoriously a superstitious breed.

Afraid or not, I expected Flynn to fight when I caught him.

No gunfighter who backed water would last long in this country. But first I had to catch him. At the border of Montana the tracks of the three I was chasing divided. The black and another horse kept on to the
north. The third rider turned south. I followed the trail of Flynn's mount, catching up a bit every day until I rode into a town with no name and found the black and another horse hitched to the rail in front of a saloon, their hides still damp from being ridden.

I tied off Ace and stepped through the door into a place that was warm with sweat and smoke and booze. Holsters were buckled to my hips and the right hand gun was in my fist. Two men stood at the bar and they turned to look, then straightened up so fast that one knocked over his beer.

"Where's Flynn?" I asked.

One man was nervous enough to talk. The other seemed sullen nd ready to fight. But I had the drop. "He ain't here," the talking one said. "He took off." "That's his horse out there. The black."

"Yeah. Was. But he traded it to Hicks here. Said he was tired of the damn big thing."

I chuckled. "Not bad. I fell for it. He knew I was following the trail by the black's prints. He's still running
and he used you two to buy him some time. You boys must feel awfully dumb for getting taken that way. Might as well tell me where he's gone."

The talking one wasn't completely stupid. I could see his mouth working as the truth took hold. Hicks, of the sullen face, just compounded his mistakes.

"You wouldn't be yapping so big if you didn't have that gun in your hand."

I don't know what made me do it. Frustration at a long trail, maybe, or anger at the thought that these men had been
part of the bunch who'd dumped Laura Cody on my doorstep.

I dropped the Colt in its holster. The talking one took half a dozen steps to the left and put his hands on the bar.

"I don't want any part of it," he said. Hicks looked around at his partner, looked back at me, licked his lips, and grabbed for his gun. I wasn't there when they buried him.

I glanced at the other one.

"He went to Nevada. To the silver mines at Comstock.”

We left out of there, Ace and I, riding east at first to reach the mountain passes before snow closed them for the winter. I gave Ace his head and the bronze stallion gave me his heart. It was near thing, but we made it. If we hadn't, Royal Flynn would have been safe until spring because in the dead of winter no one crosses the Rockies.

Freezing and thawing, fording streams made deadly by ice, struggling through drifts of early snow that would have broken another horse's spirit, we made it through. White as ghosts we came down out of the hills in the midst of a blizzard and rode into town. Only our eyes were alive, and both of us had spots of frostbite. In spite of what I'd try to do, the actions of the Colts were frozen solid, and if Flynn had been in that town he could have killed us with an ice pick. But he wasn't there and

we warmed and recovered, the horse, myself, my guns. When the blizzard broke we rode on. The people watched us go and called us fools, but we went. A week later, on a night clear and bitter but with the wind still, I walked Ace across a frozen creek into a town called Beebee. Moonlight danced off the snow, carving the land with strange shadows, but behind the windows were lights and warmth, laughter and the fog of conversations.

I stabled Ace, forked some hay for him, then warmed my hands over the wood stove in the livery man's office. I unwrapped my guns from the woolen cloth in which they had ridden under my coat next to my skin. This time the hammers clicked smoothly and the cylinders spun with a wicked music. In the light from the stove the cartridges gleamed a buttery yellow.

I knew where Royal Flynn was. I'd caught his silhouette against the window of the Rolling Rock saloon as I'd ridden past. Holstering the pistols, I made that forty yard walk, pushing back my sheepskin coat as I stepped inside with snow flakes melting on my hat and shoulders.

Flynn was there, back to me, big against a faro table. A girl hung under his left arm, pretty at first glance but worn
down by rough handling when you looked a little closer. From her laughter, I knew Flynn was winning.

I stepped around the table. Flynn saw me and his hands and face went still. From there the quiet spread, freezing voices in mid-sentence, drawing gazes toward us. I was twenty-one today.

"New boots, Royal?" I asked. "What happened to your other pair?"

Flynn looked good, black, flat-brimmed hat, broadcloth suit, ruffled shirt and a silk string tie. But there was a bruised darkness under his eyes that hadn't been there before, and tension lines carved deep around his mouth. Only his Peacemaker .45s looked the same.

Yes, he was big. And I'd thinned out over the last few weeks. My torn shirt was too loose and my jeans were patched.

But, like his, my guns were the same.

"I didn't think I was gonna catch you, Royal," I said. "Why that trick of trading your horse with one of your partners was pure genius. Hoped they'd kill me, didn't you? Guess you ought to pick your friends more carefully. They were oh so anxious to talk once I explained how you'd made fools of them."

"Shut up, boy," Flynn said. "I haven't the faintest idea what you're chattering about."

"Who is this man, Royal?" the girl asked.

Flynn's eyes never lost their lock on mine. "Just a saddle tramp who's been trying to trouble me," he answered. "A coward from what I've heard. I didn't think he'd be foolish enough to show his face to me."

"Why, Royal," I said. "You call me a coward when I've been chasing you over half the West? I bet even some of these folks here have heard that I'm hunting you."

A gray-haired man wearing spectacles and a derby hat spoke.

"You Boone Holland?"

"That I be," I said.

"Some trouble over a woman, wasn't it?" the man continued.

"Yeah. The wrong woman for Royal. He kidnapped someone I loved. She shot herself rather than let him touch--"

"That is enough!" Flynn roared, startling the people standing around him. He took a couple of steps out of the crowd.

"I'm gonna kill you, Holland," he said, and dropped his hands for his guns.

My own hands were moving. But already his pistols were coming up and a single thought was racing through my mind--"take the hits, keep shooting."

Then my own Colts were hammering, an instant before his. Twin crimson spots flashed on his white shirt, to either side of his tie. I saw flame in my eyes--muzzle flash. And my left arm went numb. Glass tinkled behind me and a lamp went black.

I stepped to one side. My left hand hung limp but the right thumbed back the hammer on that Colt and the weapon bucked again. I thought Flynn was striding toward me. Only after I shot did I realize he was falling. The third bullet caught him high, under the soft spot where his throat and chest joined. His own last shots went into the floor as he crashed down in an explosion of dust.

I walked/stumbled over to the bar and laid the right side Colt down. My left arm wouldn't work so I reached over with my right hand and holstered that gun. Then I thumbed shells, one handed, into the other pistol, standing there at the bar with a dead man bleeding into the sawdust a few feet away.

Someone poured me a whiskey and I downed it, though I'd never been one to drink. I heard someone else say they were going after the doc, and wondered why.

"He's dead," I said. "Better call an undertaker."

"Yeah, he's dead," the bartender said. "But you ain't." He poured me another drink and I downed that one too.

By the time the doctor arrived I was sitting on the floor with the bottle. Someone had helped me off with my coat and as the doc cut my shirt to look at the hole in my outside, left shoulder I offered him a drink. He turned me down, and didn't even crack a smile when I tried to pour some whiskey over the wound.

No sense of humor, that doc.

PART 5

When spring cleared the passes I threw the saddle across Ace, cinched it up, and headed for home. I was anxious to see my own grass again, and Laura's grave. My arm had mended well and we held a hard pace, cutting across country as often as not to save time. But it was a beautiful land and I stopped on occasion to sightsee.

When I came down the last hill to see my cabin before me, there was lazy smoke drifting from the chimney. I drew the Spencer from the saddle boot and walked Ace in slowly. Then the door opened and Hutton Cody stood there. He looked all right, though the marks of hard times were on his face and in the way his shoulders curved.

"Welcome back," he said as I dismounted. "Figured I'd...take over looking after the place for you.

His gaze went beyond me, toward where his daughter's grave stood. I nodded, stepped past him into the house and hung up my hat.

As I leaned the Spencer in a corner he poured some coffee and brought me a cup to the table. I sat, sipped.

"I'm glad you're better," I said then.

"Much better," he said, sitting across from me. "I... I want to thank you for all you did. For me. For...Laura.”

"For Laura," I agreed.

He leaned back in his chair, hands dropping to his lap. He nodded slightly, as if to himself. There was some kind of ledger sitting on the table and he reached and pushed it toward me.

"Sign that," he said. "And you'll be a wealthy man."

I frowned. "What is it?"

"Flynn knew some things. The railroad wants to put a line through this country. They want to build a station. Right where we're sitting. They'll pay well."

I didn't reach for the papers.

"That would be the main reason he wanted my land," I said.

"Yes. And one reason he wanted me in his debt. He knew you'd inherited this place from an old man who left no formal will. He figured a good lawyer could take it away from you."

"I see."

"When I found out what the situation was. Who was involved.I refused. He started on Laura after that. Courting her first. Then..."

He looked away from me.

"He won't ever be starting on anyone else," I said.

"I figured."

My look was a question.

"You're here," he said by way of an answer.

I pushed the papers back across the table toward him.

"Don't think I'll be selling. I like the place as it is."

"I think Laura would have liked it too," he said.

"I believe she does like it."

He nodded, picked up the papers and stood.

"I should be going. Let you settle in."

He moved toward the door and I half turned in my chair.

"Stay for supper," I said. "Tell me about Laura these last five years."

He smiled. "I'd like that," he said. "Very much."

 

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