Early in their collaboration, Everett Hitch follows Virgil Cole on a simple law-keeping job. The town is called Bilgewater, and it's only a little more inviting than the name suggests. The worst of the no-accounts in town are all named Radigan. The Radigans are a clan given to cattle rustling, horse theft, public drunkenness, careless use of firearms, and fighting, with one or two murders to round things off. Cole says he is going to deal with all of them, but when the youngest brother gets around to committing his first rape, he decides that the bottom is as good a place to start as any. So he and Hitch ride out to Cyrus Radigan's cabin, which is on an unprepossessing stretch of land away from town.
Hitch notices that Cole looks over the eight gauge as they ride toward the cabin. Hitch isn't surprised by this. A lot of people look over the eight gauge. It isn't so much that it's highly unusual as it is that Hitch always has it with him. A lot of people have eight gauges, but nobody Hitch has ever met but himself carries one around all the time. The eight gauge isn't the biggest shotgun in the world. It is possible to get a two-bore shotgun. But those are purely punt guns, mounted to boats and used for meat hunting of canvasbacks and such. A few gunmakers have made four-bores, even four-bore rifles, but that's the sort of thing you shoot elephants with and it is not exactly practical.
An eight-gauge shotgun is not exactly practical either. They're very good for shooting but not so much for carrying around all day. Hitch once saw a manual for one that was made by Purdy, the English gun maker. The manual said that the eight gauge was not recommended to any customer who weighed less than 15 stone and was not in prime condition. Hitch didn't know if he was in prime condition, but he found fifteen stones and figured he outweighed them all, separately and together, so he reckoned he'd be all right.
The eight gauge is a load sometimes, but Everett Hitch is fond of it, and on the occasions he has had to shoot a fellow he has found it to be real damn effective.
"You carry that in the bathtub?" says Cole.
"Lay it alongside."
"Good thinking. I keep my pistol on a chair next to the bath, myself. Hung the gunbelt over the chair back once upon a time, but a fellow came in and I had to draw quick and the belt weren't moored securely. Came loose. Couldn't get the gun all the way free. Had to shoot him through the holster. Nice holster, too."
"Unfortunate," says Hitch.
"The bounty on the fellow paid for it. It was an unnecessary expense, even so. Not that I'm pen -- penulti -- penitant -- aw, hell. You know, frugal."
Hitch knows that the word Cole is trying to think of is "penurious," but he doesn't think it's his place to correct Cole on this. Instead he asks a question that has been on his mind. "Town's been having problems with the Radigans for a while. If Cyrus was the weak link all this time, how come nobody went after him before?"
"You can't pick the apple till the seed becomes a tree," Cole says.
Hitch doesn't quite understand this comment. It sounds vaguely dirty to him. He concentrates on watching the country ahead as they ride toward the little cabin. The cabin has an old barn near that probably is being used as a stable now, because no horses are visible outside. A riverbed is to the side of the road; it curves around and then goes parallel to the property. The riverbed is hidden from the cabin by a small rise. They could go into the riverbed, go past and around the cabin, and then come on it from behind. Or Hitch could do that by himself, so that anybody in the cabin would think that Cole was coming to the front alone.
Cole and Hitch don't know how many people are in the cabin with Cyrus. They think two. Cyrus Radigan isn't the only person on the warrant. His friends William Porter and Earl Carter are on it as well. All of them were in on the crime together.
Cole isn't looking at the land ahead. He's riding on casually, and he's not making the detour to the riverbed that Hitch had expected. "We just going to ride up to the front door?" says Hitch.
"Everybody in town says this boy's the coward of the family," says Cole. "My guess is he's shaking like a leaf right now. And Porter and Carter are just no-accounts, by all reports even more cowardly. So they'll take their cues from Radigan, who's never been in trouble before that his brothers didn't start, and had to be goaded into that."
"Nobody goaded him into this one," says Hitch. This is as close as he's come so far to disagreeing with Virgil Cole.
Cole says, "I guess any man can take enough drink to get his rowdy up. But if you want my theory, I think his two friends were only close with Cyrus because he was a Radigan, and so he felt the need to prove he was worthy of the name. I have seen similar situations before, a time or two."
They pass the riverbed and ride on toward the cabin. They dismount in front of it. Cole walks up to the porch. Hitch hangs behind with the eight gauge, far enough to get a wide view of the building and see if anybody is trying to run out the back. It'd take a damn fool to do that, though. No way to get anywhere except with horses, and Hitch and Cole are between the cabin and the barn, so Radigan and company would have to shoot them if they wanted to saddle up. They could try to steal Hitch and Cole's horses, but that would be a gunfight, too.
Cole pounds on the door. "Cyrus Radigan!" he says. "This is Virgil Cole. I know you're in there, son. Time to come on out." There is no answer, so Cole says, "Son, you have to make a choice here. Now, this decision is not incon -- incons -- incompre-- no." Hitch knows the word is "inconsequential." He says nothing. "-- this is an important decision! You can come civil or you can get dragged out and then get beat up some because I'll be annoyed at having had to drag you."
Still no answer. A cat comes out from around the corner to the house and walks onto the porch. It's a friendly cat. It rubs against Cole's leg. When it keeps rubbing, Cole bends down to move it away just as a barrage of gunshots come through the door at about the level of his chest.
The cat takes off like a streak. Cole dives to the porch and reaches for his revolver. Hitch steps forward and puts both barrels of the eight gauge through the center of the door. It makes a good hole.
A second or two pass, and then the door opens as a body falls against it. The body has red hair, which means it is Porter.
Hitch steps back to reload. Cole has his gun out now, so he gets up just as Carter comes around the corner of the house with his hands full of guns, hammers back and ready. Before Hitch has quite realized Carter is there, Cole has put Carter down fast and hard, with most of Carter in one place and his jaw in another. Hitch knows that he couldn't have done that. If he'd been on that porch, Carter would have had him.
Now quiet settles. Cole gestures to Hitch to stay put and moves around the house to check the back. Hitch realizes that he was wrong earlier, and that Cole understands what Hitch didn't. Running out the back actually is not a damn fool thing to do. If Radigan has a rifle, he doesn't need to run far. He only needs a little distance. Let him get a few hundred yards out and give him an angle, and he can shoot Cole and Hitch down at his leisure. They won't be able to cover the ground between him and them, and without rifles of their own they can't hit him, either.
Hitch has his eight gauge but no rifle. He doesn't remember if Cole has a rifle on his saddle. Which is odd, because he was riding beside the man all day. But if he does, it's on Cole's saddle and not in his hands. So Cole has to make sure the back is secure before Radigan has a chance to get away. Cole is doing that now. Cole knows this game well.
Hitch tries to think of what he would do, if he were a scared fool of a ne'er-do-well whose friends had opened fire on the law. Hitch would try to get away. Either he would run and hide or he would go for the barn. But Cole was taking care of the first option, so Radigan had nowhere to light out to. And if Radigan somehow made it to the barn he wouldn't have time to saddle a horse before Cole and Hitch were on him. So if he's armed he might use it for cover and try for a shot from there.
Hitch backs up to the barn -- it isn't far -- and peeks around the corner. To his surprise, Radigan is there. He's getting up from the ground, where he had been laying flat during the shooting so no one would see him. Hitch realizes that for some reason Radigan must have been outside by the barn to start with. Radigan pushes to his feet and moves around the next corner. He doesn't see Hitch and isn't looking for him. Hitch understands why. After Hitch dropped back to reload he wouldn't have been visible from Radigan's position. Radigan couldn't see the other corner of the house, either, so when he saw Cole go back alone he just naturally assumed Hitch went around the other way to set up a crossfire, which is just what Hitch would have done if Cole hadn't motioned to him to stay put.
Hitch realizes what Radigan is doing. He thinks Hitch and Cole will meet at the back of the house. Since Cole's in charge, Radigan thinks they'll go on around the house in the direction Cole was going, and so Radigan is getting into position to shoot when Cole comes out from around the corner of the house. That means Radigan will be coming around the corner to Hitch's side of the barn.
Hitch could meet him head-on, but he prefers to avoid coming face to face with panicked armed men when it is possible to do so. The barn has a door around the corner from where Hitch is. A matching door is on the far side. Hitch rounds the corner and walks through the open door straight through the center of the barn. He hears Radigan moving around the outside, using the barn for cover. He knows Radigan can't hear him, because the horses are shuffling and their sounds cover Hitch's, and also Radigan's heart will be going like a steam engine. He keeps the eight gauge aimed, because the other barn door is open, too. But Radigan doesn't look into the barn when he clears the door. He just goes right past. He's in a hurry.
Hitch knows Radigan will be hiding on that corner. The cabin is longer than the barn is wide, so Radigan is in position first. He will have the drop on Cole.
Hitch has seen that Radigan has no rifle, but two revolvers, Remingtons by the look of them. They're uncocked, and so if Hitch hears that change he'll know that he's out of time and Radigan's about to fire. Cole doesn't move all that quickly on his feet, so Hitch figures on just swinging out of the barn door and stepping up behind Radigan, then putting the muzzle of the eight-gauge against Radigan's back and telling him to drop the guns. But as Hitch comes close, he hears the clicks of the hammers going back, and he knows that Cole has just come into the line of fire.
So Hitch forgets about taking Radigan in.
Hitch pivots out of the barn and fires. He's closer to Radigan than he'd thought, so the barrel is pressed hard between the man's shoulderblades when Hitch pulls the trigger. The gases from the explosion don't have anywhere to go except into Radigan, and so that's where they do go, right along with the buckshot, and all of it combined blows a hole in Radigan that Hitch can see through.
When Hitch is finished wiping off his face, he sees Cole standing in front of him. Cole looks disappointed. He'd hoped to bring the men in alive, but there was no way to salvage the situation and Cole obviously knows this. It's a shame that Cole's theory about the men being cowards did not pan out.
Cole looks up and down the area of the house, at the land, at the barn, and at the riverbed. Hitch can see what he sees, and he knows that Cole's looking at everything Hitch had seen before and had thought about. But Cole has been at this longer and is better at it, and so Hitch doesn't know what he expects Cole to say.
Cole says, "I was wrong about how to approach this, Everett. And so these men are dead. If I am wrong in the future, you must let me know. I am a better gunslinger than you are and I am better at planning too, but I'm only a human creation of the Lord and so I must sometimes make mistakes. There's no getting around it. It's in-- inoff -- ineff --" He shakes his head, lost for the word.
"It's inevitable," says Hitch.
"Inevitable, yes!" says Cole. "By God, that's it."
They load the horses and head back to town. The body of William Porter lies over his horse's saddle, Carter's over his, and Radigan's corpse, messier and smellier, is dragged behind. Cole whistles a tune to which Hitch knows the words, so he sings a little bit, and they ride the horses in together.