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Chapter 14

He walked into the hotel with me, and I washed up in a room back of the bar. I had a welt on my cheekbone and my knuckles were sore from the beating I'd given Pelly. By daybreak I'd be feeling all the sore spots.

"You're Otis Tom Chancy," my new cowhand said. "I'm Jumper Cogan. They call me June for short."

He watched me pull down my sleeves, button them, and then get into my vest again. "Otis Tom Chancy, you're one hell of a fist-fighter, but when you go out on the street again you'd better be good with a gun."

"What do you know?"

"Only what the town's talking. Caxton Kelsey is in town, LaSalle Prince and Andy Miller with him. They're gunning for you."

"There were two other men and a woman. What became of them?"

"The woman's right in this hotel got a room on the street. The other two men were Phillips and Gassner, two-by-four rustlers." He rolled a smoke. "You got any other friends?"

So I told him about Tarlton, Handy Corbin, and the men riding with the cattle. "Better let me go get them," he said. "You can always round up the herd if they scatter."

"Uh-uh. We need those cattle, and we're starting north right away. You go on out and hold them. I'll come out when this is over."

He looked at me, incredulous. "You going to tackle them alone?"

"It's my fight, isn't it?"

Thoughtfully, I worked my fingers. My fists had taken quite a beating in the fight. Would my hands stiffen too much? Still, I wasn't going to rely on a six-shooter, but on the rifle.

"Look," I said, "there's one thing you can do." I dug two gold eagles from my pocket. "Take these down to the hardware store and buy me a six-gun. The best one they have."

When he had gone I went up to my room. Right now I needed rest. I propped a chair under the doorknob, pulled off my boots and gunbelt, and stretched out on the bed with my rifle near my hand. I needed to relax, but I also needed to do some contemplating.

Caxton Kelsey was no fool. He had no doubts as to his ability to take me in a gun battle, but the way I saw it he wasn't likely to take any chances at all. There were people in town who still believed I had done the Burgess murder; and I was free simply because all the evidence they had was my possession of Burgess' gun, and because folks in Cheyenne knew Bob Tarlton—some of them knew him in person, some by reputation—and with a good many western men that association cleared me of any guilt. Tarlton had a reputation as a good man and a good citizen, but just the same if Kelsey killed me a lot of people would say it was good riddance.

Kelsey would try to set this one up, I was sure. He would try to have me boxed so I'd have no chance. The thing I would have to do would be to get the jump on him. Instead of facing them all at once, on their own ground, I'd have to take them one or two at a time.

Since Queenie was in this hotel, it was likely Kelsey and the others were here too, or close by. The first thing I must do was learn where they were.

But with all this contemplating, I was tired enough that in a few moments I fell asleep.

A gentle tapping roused me. Glancing at my big silver watch, I saw I'd been asleep more than an hour. I swung my feet to the floor and stepped over beside the door, rifle in hand.

"Si?" I said, using Spanish, which an enemy would not expect.

"It's me, boss. June Cogan."

Moving the chair back with my left hand, I tipped my Winchester to cover the crack in the door and said, "All right, open it and come in slow."

It was Cogan, all right. And Handy Corbin was with him.

"Looks like you roped yourself a maverick," I said to Cogan. "Where'd you dab a loop on this one?"

"He rounded me up," Cogan said, grinning. "Seems like word gets around, and he heard you'd hired me."

"You've got your problems," Corbin said, "I've got mine. And my problem is LaSalle Prince. I've been trying for days to cut him loose from the herd so we can settle a matter."

"I heard he was kin of yours."

"Well, there's a matter of blood-line. It ends right there. The only kin he's got, run with the wolf packs who have the same kind of nature. He killed my brother ... shot him for money."

"Where are they now?" I asked.

He told me that only Queenie was in the hotel. Phillips and Gassner were down on the street. Andy Miller was at the livery stable. LaSalle Prince was in the saloon across the way.

"Where's Kelsey?"

"You've got me. I figured you might know. Looks to me as if they're waitin' for you to come out, Chancy. This time they don't figure on your gettin' out of town."

"Corbin, I'm driving my herd up to the Hole. I'm getting married tomorrow and my wife is going with me, and I don't intend for any no-account gunmen to keep me from it. Nor do I intend to sit here waitin' for them. You say Andy's at the stable? All right, I'll go down and have a talk with him."

"You're crazy! He's all set up for you."

"More than likely he's waiting for me to show up on the street so he can bottle me up, with Prince and those two out there to help, and Kelsey to come in on the kill. He won't be expecting me, but if he is I'm going to give him his chance."

"What do you want us to do?"

"Keep them off my back. That's all. This is my party."

"Not Prince. I've been hunting LaSalle Prince for two years."

"You can have him. Just don't let him get in my way."

The new six-shooter Cogan had bought for me was a beautiful piece of workmanship. After checking the gun, I loaded it from a fresh box of shells, and dropped it into my holster, which was now on my right thigh. Taking up my rifle, I went to the door. "You boys can keep an eye on Gassner and Phillips," I said. "I am going after Miller."

There was no longer any choice. To take a wife into Indian country was bad enough, but with the threat of an attack by outlaws too it was too much. I was going to give Andy Miller the chance of leaving me alone or shooting it out.

He was a fast, accurate man with a gun. Although most men would agree that he was not in Kelsey's class, he was a dangerous man. I had no desire to be known as a good man with a gun. All I wanted now was freedom to live, to raise my cattle, and to build the kind of home I'd always'wanted.

Brimstead was out of the picture. He was a cruel, tyrannical man, but such men dig their own graves, and I felt no urge to be the man to top it off. I had whipped Stud Pelly, and Brimstead was no longer a danger to me.

The Kelsey outfit had tried to kill me. They had knocked me on the head and left me for dead, they had stolen our cattle, and they had come here to hunt me down.

I walked along the hall, and went down the back stairs to the area behind the buildings. There was a scattering of lean-to sheds and outhouses, a couple of corrals, and open grass country dotted with a few shacks. Holding the Winchester in my right hand, I walked along, stepping over bottles, broken shingles, piles of firewood, and the usual truck that is left behind buildings in a hastily constructed town that has not taken the time to clean up.

Inside, I was empty, still. I was walking toward a shoot-out with a very dangerous man, and I told myself I was a fool. I should avoid this, could have avoided it. But it would eventually catch up with me and I was not good at waiting for an axe to fall.

The livery stable was a huge, cavernous building, already weather-beaten. Behind it sprawled corrals and outbuildings. It fronted on the main street; inside there was an open space that separated the two lines of stalls. Above the stalls was the hayloft, now almost filled with hay.

Near the corrals in the rear were several freight wagons scattered over a vacant lot. While I was in the shadow beside one of the wagons it came over me what I was really tackling. Andy Miller was a skilled hand with a gun, who had used one many more times than I had. Not that I was any tenderfoot, for I'd grown up using shooting irons of one kind or another, but this was a mighty fast, tricky man I was going up against. And if somehow I came out of this one alive, there was still Kelsey.

Pausing beside the wagon, I took off my hat and wiped the hatband; after replacing it, I removed the thong from my six-shooter. Was I stalling? For a moment longer I hesitated. The sun was already going down, and it would soon be dusk. I could hear footsteps along the walks as people started for home, or for the restaurants for their evening meal. Farther away I heard a bugle sounding the mess call.

Stepping through the bars of the corral, I went across to the barn. I could smell dust, hay, and the usual barnyard odors. Having opened the gate and closed it carefully behind me, I walked across the dozen yards that separated me from the wide-open door of the stable.

The area between the rows of stalls was empty except for a man who sat at the street door, smoking a pipe. It was almost dark back in the stalls, but I could see the whites of the horses' eyes as they rolled them around at me. With the Winchester slung from my left shoulder, I went forward, eyes swinging right and left. Expecting a burst of gunfire at every step, I reached the street door, and the hostler looked up.

"Howdy! You're a soft-moving man. I never even heard you coming."

"I'm looking for Andy Miller."

He shot me a quick glance. "I'd give that some thought, boy. Not many folks go huntin' grief, thataway. Andy waited around a while, then went yonder up the street. Was I you, I'd mount up and ride whilst you're able."

Without replying to him, I started up the street, my left hand on the barrel of the Winchester. There was nothing in the way but a chicken, pecking at something that lay in the dust. When I came to the near end of the boardwalk I stepped up on it and walked along, keeping my eyes a-studying the buildings on either side, but also watching out for what lay ahead.

Just about then I noticed that not everybody had gone to supper. Phillips and Gassner were still standing on the street, and when they heard my boots on the boards they looked my way, and both of them crossed the street to the front of the hotel and waited there, watching me without seeming to. There was no sign of Corbin or Cogan.

The saloon where LaSalle Prince was said to have been was only a few doors farther along. So it should be some place right soon, if this was a trap they'd laid.

Suddenly I saw a narrow gap between the next two buildings and did a quick side step into it and stopped. It was a moment before they realized I'd gone. Then I heard a startled exclamation, followed by the quick sound of boots. They came running, with Phillips a step in advance, Gassner on his left. I was waiting for them, and as they came into the opening I jabbed the muzzle of my rifle into the pit of Phillips' stomach, and then dropped Gassner with a butt stroke on the skull. He fell as if struck by lightning, for it had been a solid blow. Phillips had staggered against the wall, holding his stomach with both hands and gasping helplessly for air, so I tunked him, too, on the skull with the rifle butt. Then I drew their guns, emptied them, and tossed them far back into the refuse and debris behind the buildings.

Not ten seconds had elapsed since they had reached the opening, and now I waited for what would come next.

The minutes ticked by slowly. Neither one of the men moved, but I was not concerned with them. Desperately, I was hoping my enemies would come into the open. My eyes went to the back of the passage, then back again to the street opening.

When nothing happened, I stepped out of the opening with my Winchester slung back to my shoulder, muzzle down, my hand hanging beside it. The street was empty.

Stepping away from the opening, I strolled up the walk ... and suddenly they were there.

Caxton Kelsey came out of the hotel door and walked three steps toward me. I could hear the faint jingle of his spurs, the creak of the boards. The sun was down now, but it was still light enough to see. He stood on the edge of the boardwalk, smiling at me. He was a handsome man, standing there like that. It was no wonder Queenie was taken by him.

At that moment there was a rustle of movement above me, and I automatically glanced up. Andy Miller was on the balcony right above Kelsey, but a little to the left. And if LaSalle Prince was still in that saloon, he would be almost behind me. So they had me boxed, after all.

There was a great stilhiess in the street. The slightest sound could be heard. I was conscious of the coolness of the breeze, drying the sweat on my forehead; I was conscious of the deepening shadow under the awning behind Kelsey. Somewhere a dog yelped ... a horse at the hitch rail stamped a foot.

Caxton Kelsey stood there calm and confident. "Well, Chancy," he said, "we've had to wait a while, but we've got you."

Kelsey was the one I had to get. I couldn't shoot at both at once, and Kelsey was the more dangerous one. Also, I knew that shooting downward, as Andy Miller would have to do, was a chancy thing. Many a shot has been missed by a man shooting downhill. Kelsey was the one I had to take, and then Miller, if luck was with me.

"Now, Mr. Kelsey," I said, "you boys sure enough came a long way hunting for something most folks try to avoid. And I figure you're seeing things from kind of a one-sided viewpoint. You say you've got me boxed, but are you right sure the shoe isn't on the other foot?

"Take Andy up there—I never did see a man more anxious to be a target. He's standing right up there in front of everybody."

I was playing for time. I wanted the jump on them the way they had tried to get it on me. That I had friends in town was true, but I had no idea any of them were within blocks of me right now. But these two surely didn't know that, and I had to put a burr under their saddle just to worry them a mite.

"And don't you expect help from LaSalle Prince, because he's going to have problems of his own in just about a minute. So it looks like you and me, Kelsey—and how about now!"

His hand slapped his gun butt, but my Winchester barrel lifted in my left hand, my right hand fired the rifle from belt-high, and my bullet caught Kelsey on the belt buckle, glancing up to strike his chest.

The blow knocked him back, and I tilted my rifle just as Andy Miller fired, taking a step forward and triggering as my foot hit ground. His shot missed, and my rifle shot truer at that range. He toppled forward, hit the edge of the roof, and rolled over, falling to the street.

Behind me in the saloon I heard a hammering of gunshots, but I could not think of those, for Kelsey was getting up, bloody and savage. He swung his gun on me and we both fired. Something hit me a wallop that staggered me, but I worked the lever on the Winchester again, and fired again. He was leaning against the water trough, with one leg spraddled out, and there was blood on his chest and his face.

The shooting behind me ceased. Rifle held waist-high, I circled into the street. Caxton Kelsey was still a fighting man, and he was grinning at me. "Why, I didn't think you had it in you, Chancy," he said. "Too bad you have to die." He was bringing his pistol up.

I could see the silver belt buckle bent out of shape, and the blood on his chest, but it didn't look as if he was badly hurt. My bullet, in glancing upward, might have just cut the skin on his chest. Where the other two bullets had hit—and I was sure they had—I did not know. He seemed to be half supporting himself against the water trough.

We were not over sixty feet apart, and I was crossing the street in a sort of half-circle, swinging away from him. At that distance my rifle was considerably more accurate, but he was a noted shot, and at sixty feet could do terrible destruction with the gun he held.

He watched me, gun balanced in his hand, waiting to make the killing shot. To pause, to sight along the barrel at him, would give him just the moment he needed, so I kept moving.

There was no sound on the street. The evening light seemed to hold, and the sun touched only the roof tops. I was conscious of the silence, of the dust, of the sense of waiting. We were alone ... as alone as if we stood in the desert each of us playing for time, each wanting the next shot to be the last.

There had been shooting in the saloon—had Handy Corbin killed Prince? Or was Prince even now nearing a door to take a shot at my back? Above all, where was Queenie? In the restaurant I heard a subdued rattle of dishes.

Kelsey had gradually eased himself around the corner of the water trough on which he had leaned. One knee had lowered to the ground, and on his left side the hitching rail and the post were a partial shield.

"I have no pity for you, Kelsey," I said. "No more than you had for Noah Gates and his men."

"What were they?" he asked contemptuously. "Just old men, worn out with years and trouble."

"But," I said, "they were men who did what they could to make a living, and not to steal it from other men. What have you done, Kelsey? Have you done an honest day's work in ten years?"

"Work is for the sheep," he said. "I run with the wolves."

His gun barrel seemed to be lifting, ever so little, but if I were farther to the left he would have to shift his gun around the post to be in line for a shot.

Suddenly I ran. Three quick steps to the right ... I stopped, and he shot. He had shifted the gun to line on me, but he fired too quickly. The shot bellowed against the wooden wall of the building, and missed. I felt the whip of it as I fired my rifle.

My bullet spat slivers from the post. I worked the lever, dropped quickly to one knee, and fired again. I saw the dust leap from his jacket, and his bullet threw dust in front of me. I started to lunge to my feet, but went suddenly weak and sprawled in the dust, still frantically working the lever.

Caxton Kelsey was up. Bloody and staggering, he was on his feet, lining his pistol at me as I lay there. Rolling over, I came to one knee and fired into him. His bullet hit the top of my shoulder, and I felt the sharp, angry burn of it. Then I fired again.

He stood an instant, the gun dangling from his fingers, then he sat down abruptly, staring at nothing. And then he simply lay down and rolled over.

Crouching there, I held my rifle ready, watching him. In a moment, using the rifle for a crutch, I pushed myself to my feet and took a step to the edge of the walk, where I sat down hard, gripping the rifle, still watching Kelsey.

People began to appear on the street, and Handy Corbin was suddenly pushing through them. He crossed the street to me.

"You got him! By the Lord Harry, you got him! They were offerin' ten-to-one odds and no takers that he'd gun you down!"

"What about Prince?" I asked.

Handy Corbin shrugged, and looked away uncomfortably. "You got to understand that, boss," he said, almost apologetically. "He was one of our own, and it was up to me to do. We're good folks, mostly, and we aim to do right. LaSalle was no good—right from the start there was something cross-grained about him. He was forever a-tryin' to lead us boys into trouble. Two, three times as he was growin' up pa got him out of trouble, but it seemed like he got wilder and meaner.

"Then a neighbor of ours sold some sheep, and LaSalle met him on the road and LaSalle had a bottle. The two of them got to drinkin', and first thing you know that neighbor woke up with a thick head and his money gone. LaSalle, he began spendin' down at the corners, and we knew what must have happened. That man braced him with it, and LaSalle shot him. Didn't kill him, but hurt him bad, and then LaSalle, he taken out.

"Next thing we knew he was off buffalo huntin', but he spent more time huntin' buffalo hunters than buffalo. He sold a team of grays in Cherry Creek, Colorado, that had belonged to a couple of brothers working out of Abilene. Somebody recognized the horses, and later the bodies were found. LaSalle, he became an outlaw. He went from that to killin' for hire, and we figured we'd turned loose a mad wolf on the country, and it was up to us to slow him down. Pa, he saddled up and rode off to have a talk with him.

"LaSalle, he laughed at pa. Said he was a sanctimonious old fool, and told him to go on back home whilst he was able. Pa wasn't about to take that off no man, and he told LaSalle to take off his guns, because he was sure enough goin' to whup him. Pa stripped off his guns, and then LaSalle drew one of his and shot pa. He shot him in the knee, and he fell, and when he tried to get up, he shot him in the other. He cussed pa out, then killed him. So I've been huntin' him ever since, and teachin' myself to be fast enough to beat him."

Me, I was beginning to get the reaction now, the letdown that comes after. I didn't want to talk, I wanted to get in somewhere off the street. Corbin helped me down to the Doc's office, where Bob Tarlton was a-pacing the floor. He'd heard the shooting—in fact, it woke him from a nap he was taking. The Doc was there and wouldn't let him go out on the street.

It felt good just to stretch out on that table, for I was all in. That was one time I'd not have given a plugged nickel for Otis Tom Chancy's possibilities, and nobody knew better than me how lucky I'd been.

As it was, I'd caught a slug through the shoulder that missed the bone. I had a deep furrow across the top of the shoulder, and at least two bullet burns I didn't even recall getting. I'd lost some blood and a whole lot of steam.

But the thing that worried me now was Kit. There was no sign of her, but she might be hunting me right then.

"Handy," I said, "you go down to the hotel and find Miss Dunvegan. Tell her I'm all right."

The Doc looked around. "She was around here earlier, Chancy. She had that cowhand of yours, Jumper Cogan. She was hunting the marshal."

The marshal? Where had he been, anyway? Was he like some of those cowtown marshals who preferred to see trouble shoot itself out? Some of them never lifted a hand, as long as the town's citizens were left alone.

Well, I started to get up and the Doc pushed me down. "You lie still. You may not be shot up as bad as I expected, but you've lost a lot of blood and you're weaker than a cat."

Tarlton got up. "I'll go with him, Otis. You rest easy now. Who did you say the girl was?"

"Her name is Kitty Dunvegan, and she's pretty as all get out. Come noontime tomorrow, we're getting married."

"We'll find her then," Tarlton said. "But I know June Cogan, and if she's with him she'll be all right."

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