Bull's Eye Stage Coach, страница 1
By the Same Author
A chill ran down his back. His hand dropped to the butt of his holstered forty-five. His eyes darted to the door that led in from the street. There was nobody there.
He shivered suddenly, unexpectedly. An icy draft from nowhere ran down his spine. He frowned. His stomach tightened into a hard knot.
‘Now what?’ he muttered under his breath.
Dwight Stern was no stranger to the feeling. Trouble was about to erupt. He had no idea where it might come from. It would be soon, though. The feeling was familiar enough; by now he no longer doubted its ominous portent. He got up and walked to the small window, looking up and down the street. Nothing seemed out of place. He took a deep breath and returned to his desk.
He was certainly no stranger to trouble, either. It went with the job. Town marshal didn’t sound like that big a deal. Town marshal in Headland, Wyoming Territory was a different matter.
It hadn’t been that much of a job when he took the position. Then the big gold rush in the Black Hills, across the line in Dakota Territory, had hit. Just about the same time gold was also found in the hills close to Headland. It wasn’t of the magnitude of the strikes around Lead and Deadwood, but it was sizeable. It changed everything.
He hated gold. A few struck it rich. Very few. A few more managed to scratch out day wages, digging or panning. Numberless more lost everything they had, searching for it. He wasn’t sure who lost the most. The ones who failed in their quest often lost everything but their honor, their dignity, and their values. The ones who struck it rich usually lost the only things the ‘losers’ kept.
He took another deep breath and went back to the paperwork on his desk.
The exultant yell emanating from the Lucky Lady saloon down the street didn’t so much as raise his eyebrows. It was the rapid series of gunshots following it that brought Dwight Stern to his feet.
He walked swiftly out the door, passing beneath the sign that announced Town Marshal, and strode toward the source of the sounds.
As he did his eyes swept up and down Headland’s main street yet again. Nothing triggered any sense of alarm in his practiced gaze. It was just another day in an endless string of other days.
The sun was approaching the mountains, which raised their snowcapped peaks to the west of town. In the clear, high air, they appeared almost near enough to touch. They were, in reality, more than thirty miles away.
The sun’s angle did, however, put half of Headland’s main street in shadow. Dwight availed himself of what little protection that shadow afforded as he proceeded toward the disturbance.
He already knew, with near certainty, what he would find. A large herd from the Mule Shoe ranch had been successfully driven to the railhead at Cheyenne about a week previous. Half the drovers had remained in Cheyenne. The cowboys who chose to stay on at the ranch had returned as a group early this morning. With several months’ wages in their pockets, and just as many months’ loneliness to make up for, they had stayed in town instead of returning at once to the ranch.
A stream of people spilled from the door of the Lucky Lady as Dwight approached. Clearly fleeing to safer space, they stopped as they saw him approach. They divided like water from the prow of a boat before him, allowing him unimpeded access to the saloon’s door.
He stepped through the door and took a quick step to the side, his back against the front wall. His eyes adjusted to the darker interior almost instantly.
Near the far end of the bar, a boyish-looking cowhand stood spraddle-legged, a forty-five in his hand, waving it around randomly. A wide grin threatened the stability of both ears. He spotted Dwight immediately.
‘Hey, Marshal!’ he shouted. ‘How ya doin’? I’m havin’ a ball! I’m all wool an’ a yard wide, an’ I’m gonna get drunker’n a skunk.’
Although he was not conscious of having counted the shots he had heard, Dwight was well aware the young cowboy’s gun was empty. He made no effort to reach for his own gun. Grinning broadly in a deliberate display of good-natured friendliness, he approached the young man.
‘It looks to me like you got a pretty good start on that, all right,’ he observed.
‘I’m tyin’ a good one on, that’s for sure,’ the cowpoke assured him.
‘You bein’ careful where you’re shootin’ that thing?’ Stern asked.
‘That gun in your hand.’
The young man looked at the gun in his hand as if seeing it for the first time. He frowned in an effort to concentrate. He looked back at Dwight. ‘Well, yeah. I just been shootin’ it up in the air.’
‘Yeah, but did you forget that you’re inside? Up in the air, in here, means at the ceiling. But the ceiling’s the floor upstairs. What happens if you shoot through the floor and hit someone upstairs?’
The cowboy frowned. He looked up at the ceiling, trying hard to comprehend what the marshal was saying.
‘What’s your name, son?’ Stern asked him.
‘Billy. Billy O’Leary. Best bronc wrangler on the Mule Shoe, at your service, Marshal. You got any bad guys you need help handlin’? I’ll sure’s shootin’ take care of ’em for ya.’
‘Well, Billy, why don’t you let me take care of that gun for you, while you manage to drink up your wages. That way you can get just as drunk as you want to, and nobody’ll accidently get hurt.’
Billy frowned at him for a long moment. ‘You gonna give it back to me when I get sobered up?’
‘Sure. I just don’t want you doin’ somethin’ you’ll regret later.’
Billy thought about it a moment, then holstered the gun. He missed the holster twice before he succeeded in getting it put away. Then he unbuckled his gunbelt and handed it to the marshal. ‘You’re a good man, Marshal,’ he said for no apparent reason.
Dwight took the gunbelt in his left hand, then addressed several cowboys sitting at two tables in the general vicinity. ‘Are you boys with Billy?’
Several of them nodded wordlessly.
‘Any of you stayin’ sober enough to keep your friend from gettin’ rolled or killed?’
An older man whose face was etched by wind and sun nodded. ‘I’m sorta keepin’ an eye on the boys. I got most o’ their money squirreled away for ’em. Billy’s gun was empty by the time you got here, you know.’
Dwight nodded. ‘Yeah.’
He scanned the faces of the rest of the Mule Shoe crew. Within a couple weeks they would all return to work with splitting headaches, empty pockets, and more than likely some lingering ‘souvenirs’ from the ‘soiled doves’ who would, by then, be in possession of most of their money.
That routine of the range was of little concern to Stern. Of greater concern was the danger of someone getting in the way of a drunk cowboy intent on shooting holes in the ceiling. Either that, or shooting out a lamp, with a resulting fire that could wipe out half the town.
‘You handled that plumb good, Marshal.’
Dwight nodded at a hand he recognized from the Flying Vee spread. ‘Aw, he’s just a kid that did
‘Yeah, as long as he don’t go doin’ it down at the Golden Nugget.’
‘Yeah, that might be a problem,’ Dwight agreed.
The words called up his ongoing concern of the likelihood of a clash between one of those cowboys and an equally inebriated miner from one of the gold mines that were now scattered about the area.
That wasn’t usually a major problem. The cowboys and ranchers mostly frequented the Lucky Lady saloon, while the miners generally favored the Golden Nugget saloon, a block down the street. Mule-skinners, bull-whackers, soldiers, and what few homesteaders there were, just about evenly split their business, patronizing whichever of the establishments struck their fancy at the time.
After another glance around the saloon, he left by the front door. Most of those who had fled the random shooting were already back inside, acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Dwight looked right and left, up and down the street. Most of his time and effort, with the exception of the occasional serious crime, was taken up by the two saloons.
Of the two, he much preferred the Lucky Lady. Cowboys were generally boisterous, impulsive, and often violent. They usually managed to get very drunk when they came to town. They were ready to fight each other, or anyone else for that matter, at the drop of a hat. But beneath that, their nature was mostly good-hearted and even sentimental. The miners, on the other hand, tended to be of a much more sour disposition, often bitter, morose, even cruel. He attributed it to the difference between life in the sun and life spent mostly underground, but he didn’t know if there was any substance to that supposition.
At the end of the main street a more elaborate and pretentious Pastime Emporium catered to the higher class of citizen. It was the only establishment of its kind Dwight had ever known to be operated by a woman. Belle Le Beaux ran it with an iron hand. Her ‘girls’ were refined enough that they actually patronized the town’s businesses that didn’t welcome the ‘horizontal workers’ of the other two saloons. Nobody got out of line at the Pastime. It was rumored that the ‘girls’ who worked as bouncers there could put the toughest man in town on his back in a heartbeat, and have him begging for mercy.
That there was some truth to the rumor was reflected in the fact that Dwight had never once needed to set foot inside the place since it had opened nearly two years previous.
His reverie was shattered as his eyes lit on the man leaning against a post that supported the awning in front of the saddle shop. Alarm bells sounded in his mind instantly. The man had neither moved nor spoken, but Dwight immediately recognized him as a threat. Without consciously looking at it, he noticed the man wore a tied-down Smith & Wesson forty-four with a five-inch barrel. He was also willing to bet that the front sight had been filed off, to be sure it didn’t interfere with a quick draw.
The man returned his stare without expression. His gaze was cold and hard. It reminded Dwight of looking into the eyes of a rattlesnake.
‘You always look for awkward young kids to embarrass like that?’ the man demanded.
The hackles rose on the back of Dwight’s neck. It might have been an innocent enough remark, if it had been made by someone else, or in a different tone, or by someone with a legitimate interest in the cowboy’s feelings. To Dwight, it was a clear challenge.
His voice was soft, but his eyes returned the hard gaze of the stranger. ‘Why would that be any business of yours?’ he asked.
‘I just hate to see some young kid made to look like a fool just so a lawman can make himself out to be a tough guy,’ the man asserted.
‘Your concern’s real touching.’ Dwight grinned, attempting to defuse the situation.
The man was having none of that. ‘I bet you ain’t so tough with them as is already dry behind the ears.’
‘I don’t remember you,’ the marshal said, instead of answering the man’s challenge. ‘You new in town?’
‘Now I don’t see as that’s any o’ your business.’
‘You’re wrong on that one. That is my business. I’m the marshal. You new in town?’ he demanded again.
The man straightened from leaning on the post. His hand brushed the handle of the Smith & Wesson on his hip, polished from countless contacts with his hand. ‘And I say that ain’t none o’ your business. Why don’t you try takin’ my gun away from me, like you did that kid.’
‘If I have to, I will,’ Dwight assured him.
That was all the man was waiting for. His gun fairly leaped into his hand, lifting to center on the star on Dwight’s vest.
Fast as the man was, Dwight was both ready and faster. His Colt blasted an instant ahead of the stranger’s Smith & Wesson. The man was slammed backward by the force of the bullet. His own shot, a split second later, went wide and high, soaring harmlessly into the distance.
The man staggered a step backward, fighting to maintain his balance. He frowned quizzically, trying to grasp what had happened. He fought to bring his gun to bear on the marshal, but it seemed suddenly much heavier than normal. It sagged downward. He squeezed the trigger, and it fired into the ground. The recoil jerked it out of his grip. It landed in the dusty street. He followed it a second later, his eyes wide, staring without blinking and without sight at the dust that suddenly covered his eyes.
Dwight frowned as he holstered his Colt.
‘What happened, Marshal?’ a slightly overweight man with mutton-chop sideburns demanded.
Dwight sighed. ‘Fella called me out, just plumb outa the blue. Made himself an excuse to draw on me. You know him, Walt?’
Walter Newsome, editor of the Headland Courier, shook his head. ‘I have not had the pleasure of the gentleman’s company,’ he replied.
‘You’re no help,’ Dwight complained. ‘I thought you newspaper guys knew everything.’
Walt chuckled. ‘It only seems that way because we are always incredibly well-informed, and because we are so uncannily intelligent.’
‘Yeah, that’s it all right,’ Dwight responded.
A crowd had already gathered. He felt a sudden need to escape the barrage of questions sure to be directed at him. ‘Holler at Corny for me, would you, Walt?’
Without waiting for the newspaperman to answer, he headed up the street toward his office. Cornelius Janderslaag was the undertaker. He’d take care of the stranger’s body. He would also duly bill the town for doing so. He guessed that was fair enough.
The premonition of danger should have dissipated with the stranger’s death. It didn’t. Its chills continued to play that icy tune of terror up and down his spine.
‘’Scuse me, Marshal.’
Dwight looked the young man up and down. He seemed to bear no threat. He was average height, maybe five-foot-seven, muscular, at close to 150 pounds, tousled brown hair jutting from beneath a slightly smaller hat than cowboys wore. Clear brown eyes met Dwight’s with neither timidity nor challenge.
‘What can I do for you?’ the marshal replied.
‘Just wondered if you might know somebody in town that’s hirin’,’ the man said. ‘I’m sorta in need of a job.’
‘Didn’t strike it rich, huh?’
He grinned. ‘Didn’t try. Trompin’ around the hills turnin’ rocks over ain’t never struck me as a good way to make a livin’.’
‘What do you do for a livin’?’
‘Whatever’s available. Work with my hands. I’m pretty handy. I’m stout. I’m a good worker.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘Goode. Lester Goode.’
‘Where you from, Lester?’
‘Just Les, if you don’t mind. Missouri.’
Dwight grinned. ‘Les Goode. I ’spect you get a bad time about that now and then.’
Les grinned in response. ‘I’ve been ribbed about worse stuff than my name.’
‘You ever do any carpenterin’?’
‘Yeah. Quite a little, as a matter o
‘You any good at it?’
‘More’n just good. I’ve been told I drive nails like lightnin’.’
‘Yup. My hammer never strikes twice in the same spot.’
Dwight chuckled. ‘Makes it kinda hard to get a nail driven, don’t it?’
‘Naw. It just takes a little longer. But havin’ to swing the hammer twice as much makes my arm stronger. Actually, I ain’t really all that bad.’
‘Well, Virgil Zucher’s lookin’ for a man or two. He’s got more work than he can handle, what with all the buildin’ goin’ on.’
‘The town does seem right prosperous. Where could I find Mr Zucher?’
‘You won’t find him at all if you call ’im “Mr Zucher”. He’ll just tell you Mr Zucher was killed in the war.’
The stranger frowned. ‘Why would he say that?’
‘’Cause his father was killed in the war.’
Goode grinned. ‘Oh. Well, then, where could I find Virgil?’
Dwight pointed at one of the streets running at rightangles to the main street. ‘His house is up that street. It’d be the fifth house, I guess. He’s got a shingle out front, so you can’t miss it. He’s more’n likely over at the bank now, though.’
‘The Headland Land and Mineral Bank, not the other one. They’re startin’ to build on. They’re gonna more’n double the size of the bank.’
‘That oughta be a good sized job. Banks build right good. “Hell for stout”, as the sayin’ goes.’
‘Makes folks feel like their money’s secure, that way.’
‘There’s a lot o’ money in the banks in this town, I’m bettin’.’
‘Well, it’s good cow country, an’ beef’s pertneart six cents a pound, I hear, so the ranchers gotta be doin’ good. Then there’s all the gold comin’ outa the hills. Lots o’ people flockin’ inta the area means the merchants are makin’ money hand over fist. Yup, the banks oughta be plumb full o’ money.’
Something about the way he said it excited a brief flurry of activity by the spine chills that had been troubling Dwight, but the sensation disappeared almost as soon as it started.