Informational Site NetworkInformational Site Network
Privacy
 
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


The Gunfighter








From: The Range Boss

Red Owen, foreman of the Flying W in place of Tom Chavis, resigned, was
stretched out on his blanket, his head propped up with an arm, looking at
the lazy, licking flames of the campfire. He was whispering to Bud
Taylor, named by Randerson to do duty as straw boss in place of the
departed Pickett, and he was referring to a new man of the outfit who had
been hired by Randerson about two weeks before because the work seemed to
require the services of another man, and he had been the only applicant.

The new man was reclining on the other side of the fire, smoking, paying
no attention to any of the others around him. He was listening, though,
to the talk, with a sort of detached interest, a half smile on his face,
as though his interest were that of scornful amusement.

He was of medium height, slender, dark. He was taciturn to the point of
monosyllabic conversation, and the perpetual, smiling sneer on his face
had gotten on Red Owen's nerves.

"Since he's joined the outfit, he's opened his yap about three times a
day--usual at grub time, when if a man loosens up at all, he'll loosen up
then," Red told Taylor, glaring his disapproval. "I've got an idea that
I've seen the cuss somewheres before, but I ain't able to place him."

"His mug looks like he was soured on the world--especial himself. If I
had a twistin' upper lip like that, I'd sure plant some whiskers on it. A
mustache, now, would hide a lot of the hyena in him."

Owen stared meditatively at the new man through the flames. "Yes," he
said expressionlessly, "a mustache would make him look a whole lot
different." He was straining his mental faculties in an effort to
remember a man of his acquaintance who possessed a lower lip like that of
the man opposite him, eyes with the same expression in them, and a nose
that was similar. He did not succeed, for memory was laggard, or his
imagination was playing him a trick. He had worried over the man's face
since the first time he had seen it.

He heaved a deep breath now, and looked perplexedly into the flames.
"It's like a word that gits onto the end of your tongue when your
brain-box ain't got sense enough to shuck it out," he remarked, lowly.
"But I'll git it, some time--if I don't go loco frettin' about it."

"What you figger on gettin'--a new job?" asked Taylor, who had been
sinking into a nap.

"Snakes!" sneered Owen.

"Thank yu', I don't want 'em," grinned Taylor with ineffable gentleness,
as he again closed his eyes.

Owen surveyed him with cold scorn. Owen's temper, because of his
inability to make his memory do his bidding, was sadly out of order. He
had been longing for days to make the new man talk, that he might be
enabled to sharpen his memory on the man's words.

He studied the man again. He had been studying him all day, while he and
some more of the men had worked the cattle out of some timber near the
foothills, to the edge of the basin--where they were now camped. But the
face was still elusive. If he could only get the man to talking, to watch
the working of that lower lip!

His glance roved around the fire. Seven men, besides the cook--asleep
under the wagon--and Randerson, were lying around the fire in positions
similar to his own. Randerson, the one exception, was seated on the edge
of the chuck box, its canvas cover pushed aside, one leg dangling, his
elbow resting on the other.

Randerson had been rather silent for the past few days--since he had
ridden in to the ranchhouse, and he had been silent tonight, gazing
thoughtfully at the fire. Owen's gaze finally centered on the range boss.
It rested there for a time, and then roved to the face of the new
man--Dorgan, he called himself. Owen started, and his chin went forward,
his lips straightening. For he saw Dorgan watching Randerson with a
bitter sneer on his lips, his eyes glittering coldly and balefully!

Evil intent was written largely here--evil intent without apparent reason
for it. For the man was a stranger here; Randerson had done nothing--to
Owen's knowledge--to earn Dorgan's enmity; Randerson did not deliberately
make enemies. Owen wondered if Dorgan were one of those misguided persons
who take offense at a look unknowingly given, or a word, spoken during
momentary abstraction.

Owen had disliked Dorgan before; he hated him now. For Owen had formed a
deep attachment for Randerson. There was a determination in his mind to
acquaint the range boss with his suspicions concerning Dorgan's
expression, and he got up, after a while, and took a turn around the
campfire in the hope of attracting Randerson's attention.

Randerson paid no attention to him. But through the corners of his eyes,
as he passed Dorgan, Owen noted that the man flashed a quick, speculative
glance at him. But Owen's determination had not lessened. "If he's
suspicious of me, he's figgerin' on doin' some dog's trick to Wrecks. I'm
puttin' Wrecks wise a few, an' if Dorgan don't like it, he c'n go to
blazes!"

He walked to the rear of the chuck box and stood within half a dozen feet
of Randerson.

"Figger we've got 'em all out of the timber?" he asked.

There was no answer from Randerson. He seemed absorbed in contemplation
of the fire.

"W-r-e-c-k-s!" bawled Owen, in a voice that brought every man of the
circle upright, to look wildly around. Taylor was on his feet, his hair
bristling, the pallor of mingled fear, astonishment, and disgust on his
face. Owen grinned sardonically at him. "Lay down an' turn over, you
wall-eyed gorilla!" admonished Owen. He turned his grin on the others.
"Can't a man gas to the boss without all you yaps buttin' in?" he
demanded.

"What for are you-all a-yowlin' that-a-way for?" questioned a
gentle-voiced Southerner reproachfully. "I was just a-dreamin' of rakin'
in a big pot in a cyard game. An' now you've done busted it up." He sank
disgustedly to his blanket.

"He thinks he's a damned coyote," said a voice.

"You're thinkin' it's a yowl," said another. "But you've got him wrong.
He's a jackass, come a-courtin'."

"A man can't get no sleep at all, scarcely," grumbled another.

But Owen had accomplished his purpose. For during the exchange of
amenities Randerson had answered him--without turning, though:

"What you wantin', Red?" he said.

"You figger we've got 'em all out of the timber?" repeated Owen.

"Shucks." Randerson's voice was rich with mirth. "Why, I reckon. Unless
you was figgerin' to use a fine-toothed comb. Why, the boys was all
a-nappin', Red," he added gently.

He did not look around, so that Owen might give him the warning wink that
would have put him on his guard. Owen would have tapped him on the
shoulder, but glancing sidelong, he saw Dorgan watching him, and he did
not. A ripple of scornful laughter greeted Randerson's reply, and with a
sneering glance around, Owen again sought his blanket.

The reception that had been accorded his effort had made him appear
ridiculous, he knew. It would be days before the outfit would cease
referring to it.

He stretched himself out on the blanket, but after a few moments of
reflection, he sat up, doggedly. He had been imagining all sorts of dire
things that Dorgan might have in mind. He had a presentiment of impending
trouble, and so deep was it that his forehead was damp with perspiration.

Several of the men, disturbed by Owen, had sat up, and were smoking and
talking, and when he heard one of the men, named Blair, refer to a
gunman, Watt Kelso, who had formerly graced Lazette with his presence, a
light leaped into Owen's eyes, his teeth came together with a snap, his
lips formed into straight lines, and he drew a slow, deep breath. For
that was the word that had eluded him--Kelso! And Kelso--how plain and
simple it seemed to him now--Kelso was Dorgan, sitting opposite him now!
Kelso minus his mustache, looking much different than when he had seen
him last, but Kelso, just the same--undeniably Kelso!

So great was Owen's excitement over this discovery that he was forced to
lie down and turn his back to the fire for fear that Kelso might look at
him and thus discover that he was recognized.

As he lay there, his brain yielded to a riot of speculation. What was
Kelso doing here? Why had he come, minus the mustache, assuming the name,
Dorgan? What meant his glances at Randerson?

He provided an explanation presently. Memory drew a vivid picture for
him. It showed him a saloon in Lazette, some card tables, with men seated
around them. Among the men were Kelso and Randerson. Randerson had been a
mere youth. Kelso and Randerson were seated opposite each other, at the
same table. Kelso had been losing--was in bad temper. He had charged
Randerson with cheating. There had been words, and then Kelso had essayed
to draw his pistol. There was a scuffle, a shot, and Kelso had been led
away with a broken arm, broken by Randerson's bullet--blaspheming, and
shouting threats at Randerson. And now, after years of waiting, Kelso had
come to carry out his threats. It was all plain to Owen, now. And with
the knowledge, Owen's excitement abated and he sat up, coldly observant,
alert, to watch and listen.

For, while Owen had been thinking, Blair had continued to talk of Watt
Kelso, of his deeds and his personality. And Owen saw that for the first
time since joining the outfit, Kelso seemed interested in the talk around
him. He was watching Blair with narrowed, glittering eyes, in which Owen
could see suspicion. It was as though he were wondering if Blair knew
that the man of whom he spoke now was at that minute sitting close to
him, listening. But presently, Owen became convinced that Kelso thought
not, for the suspicion in the gunman's eyes changed to cold, secret
amusement.

"Kelso's pulled his freight from Lazette," declared Blair, during the
course of his talk. "It's likely he'll drift somewhere where he ain't so
well known. It got to be pretty hard pickin' for him around here--folks
fight shy of him. But he was sure a killer!"

Blair paused. "I reckon I might mention a man that he didn't kill," said
a man who lay near Blair. "An' he wanted to, mighty bad."

"We're wantin' to know," returned Blair. "He must have been a high-grade
gun-slinger."

The man nodded toward Randerson, who apparently was not listening to this
conversation. There was a subdued chuckle from the man, and grunts of
admiration or skepticism from the others. Owen's gaze was fixed on Kelso;
he saw the latter's eyes gleam wickedly. Yes, that was it, Owen saw now;
the recollection of his defeat at Randerson's hands still rankled in the
gunman's mind. Owen saw him glance covertly at Randerson, observed his
lips curl.

One of the other men saw the glance also. Not having the knowledge
possessed by Owen, the man guffawed loudly, indicating the gunman.

"Dorgan ain't swallerin' your yarn about Randerson puttin' a kink in
Kelso," he said to Blair.

Randerson turned, a mild grin on his face. "You fellows quit your
soft-soapin' about that run-in with Kelso," he said. "There ain't any
compliments due me. I was pretty lucky to get out of that scrape with a
whole hide. They told me Kelso's gun got snagged when he was tryin' to
draw it."

So then, Randerson had been listening, despite his apparent
abstraction. And Owen sat rigid when he saw the gunman look coldly at
Randerson and clear his throat.

Plainly, if Kelso had been awaiting an opportunity to take issue with
Randerson, it was now!

"Yes," he said, "you was mighty lucky."

There was a sneer in the words, and malevolence in the twist of his lips
as his voice came through them.

A flat, dead silence followed the speech. Every man held the position in
which he had been when the gunman had spoken; nothing but their eyes
moved, and these were directed from Randerson to the gunman and back
again, questioningly, expectantly. For in the hearts of the men who had
been talking until now there had been no thought of discord; they had
spoken without rancor. But hostility, cold, premeditated, had been in the
new man's speech.

Randerson moved his head slightly, and he was looking straight into
Kelso's eyes. Kelso had moved a little; he was now sitting on his saddle,
having shifted his position when Blair had begun to talk, and the thumb
of his right hand was hooked in his cartridge belt just above the holster
of his pistol.

Randerson's face was expressionless. Only his eyes, squinted a little,
with a queer, hard glint in them, revealed any emotion that might have
affected him over Kelso's words.

"Yes, Dorgan," he said gently, "I was mighty lucky."

Kelso's lips curved into a slow, contemptuous smile.

"I reckon you've always been lucky," he said.

"Meanin'?"

"Meanin' that you've fell into a soft place here, that you ain't fit to
fill!"

Again a silence fell, dread, premonitory. It was plain to every man of
the outfit, awake and listening, that Dorgan had a grievance--whether
real or imaginary, it made little difference--and that he was determined
to force trouble. Only Owen, apparently, knowing the real state of
affairs, knew that the reference to Randerson's inefficiency was a mere
pretext. But that violence, open, deadly, was imminent, foreshadowed by
Dorgan's word, every man knew, and all sat tense and pale, awaiting
Randerson's reply.

They knew, these men, that it was not Randerson's way to force
trouble--that he would avoid it if he could do so without dishonor. But
could he avoid it now? The eyes that watched him saw that he meant to
try, for a slow, tolerant smile appeared on his lips.

"I reckon you're plumb excited--Owen wakin' you up out of your sleep like
he did," said Randerson. "But," he added, the smile chilling a little, "I
ain't askin' no man to work for me, if he ain't satisfied. You can draw
your time tomorrow, if it don't suit you here."

"I'm drawin' it now!" sneered the gunman. "I ain't workin' for no
pussy-kitten specimen which spends his time gallivantin' around the
country with a girl, makin' believe he's bossin', when--" Here he added
something that made the outfit gasp and stiffen.

As he neared the conclusion of the speech, his right hand fell to his
gun-holster. Owen had been watching him, and at the beginning of the
movement he shouted a warning:

"Look out, Wrecks!"

He had been afraid to tell Randerson that it was Kelso who was facing
him, for fear that the information, bursting upon Randerson quickly,
would disconcert him.

But Randerson had been watching, understanding the drift of the gunman's
words. And when he saw the shoulder of his gun-arm move, his own right
hand dropped, surely, swiftly. Kelso's gun had snagged in its holster
years before. It came freely enough now. But its glitter at his side was
met by the roar and flame spurt of Randerson's heavy six, the thumb snap
on the hammer telling of the lack of a trigger spring, the position of
the weapon indicating that it had not been drawn from its holster.

Apparently not a man in the outfit had noticed this odd performance,
though they had been held with dumb astonishment over the rapidity with
which it had been executed. But they saw the red, venomous streak split
the night; they heard the gunman's gurgling gasp of amazement, and they
watched, with ashen faces, while he dropped his weapon, sagged oddly
forward and tumbled headlong into the sand near the fire. Then several of
them sprang forward to drag him back.

It had seemed that none of the men had noticed that Randerson had seemed
to shoot his pistol while it was still in the holster. One, however, had
noticed. It was Red Owen. And while the other men were pulling the gunman
back from the fire, Owen stepped close to Randerson, lifted the holster,
and examined it quickly. He dropped it, with a low exclamation of
astonishment.

"I was wonderin'--Holy smoke! It's a phony holster, fixed on the gun to
look like the real thing! An' swung from the belt by the trigger guard!
Lord, man! Did you know?"

"That Dorgan was Kelso?" said Randerson, with a cold smile. "I reckon. I
knowed him the day he asked for a job. An' I knowed what he come
for--figurin' on settlin' that grudge."

Randerson and Owen started toward the gunman, to determine how badly he
had been hit; they were met by Blair. There was amazement and incredulity
in the man's eyes.

"He's goin' to cash in--quick," he said. "You got him, pretty nearly
proper--just over the heart. But, but, he says he's Watt Kelso! An' that
that eastern dude, Masten, sent him over here--payin' him five hundred
cold, to perforate you!"

Randerson ran to where Kelso lay, gasping and panting for breath. He
knelt beside him.

"You talkin' straight, Kelso?" he asked. "Did Masten hire you to put me
out of business?"

"Sure," whispered Kelso.

"Where's Masten stayin'?"

"With Chavis--in the shack. He's been there right along, except," he
finished, with a grim attempt at humor, "when he's been rushin' that
biscuit-shooter in Lazette."

Five minutes later, standing near one of the wheels of the chuck-wagon,
gazing somberly at the men, who were carrying Kelso away, Randerson spoke
grimly to Owen, who was standing beside him.

"Pickett an' then Kelso! Both of them was sure bad enough. But I reckon
Masten's got them both roped an' hog-tied for natural meanness." He
turned to Owen. "I reckon I had to do it, old man," he said, a quaver in
his voice.

"Buck up, Wrecks!" Owen slapped him on the shoulder, and turned toward
the men.

Randerson watched him, but his thoughts were elsewhere. "I reckon she'd
have wanted it different," he said to himself.





Next: Ready Gun And Clean Heart

Previous: The Target



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 455