“Oh, Chris.” Buck sighed as he sat back on his heels, studying the wreck of a man draped over what had once been a chair. The man had a nasty-looking gash over one eye, a split lip, and blood on his knuckles, though whether it was his own or someone else’s, Buck had no way of knowing. “What the hell am I gonna do with you?”
Chris’s only response was a snore.
“You are a pain in my ass, you know that?” He glanced around the saloon, but it was a disaster from the brawl that Buck had absolutely no doubt that Chris had started; shards of glass, sticky patches of spilt liquor, splintered remnants of chairs and tables. The bartender was glaring at Chris’s prone form – and Buck by extension – and the victims of Chris’s temper were all getting hauled away by those who weren’t so badly off. No one, it seemed, would be willing to help him get Chris out of here.
With another sigh, he manhandled Chris up, then stood and heaved him over his shoulder, staggering a little before steadying himself. Chris groaned at the change in position. “If you puke down my back, stud, I’m gonna drop your ass in the horse trough.” When Chris quieted again, he pushed out of the saloon and headed for the boarding house where he’d gotten a room. I’ll leave Chris there and see if Miss Violet is still hankerin’ for some company, he thought and immediately felt better.
Violet was a pretty gal, warm and willing, and hopefully she wouldn’t be too put out that he’d left her by herself to look in on a drunken fight in the bar. But the voice he’d heard shouting had been too familiar to ignore, and just the sound had taken him back in time, it seemed, when his fast-talking had been the only thing between Chris and a night in jail.
Chris always did get loud and belligerent when he’d gotten too far in the bottle.
He’d just dumped Chris on the bed and pulled off his boots when an uproar started on the street – shouting, whooping, gunfire – and he eased over to the window to peek out. “I don’t know how you can be behind this, Chris,” he told Chris, now snoring happily in his bed, “but I’m willin’ to bet somehow you are. Trouble follows you closer than your damned shadow.”
From the window, Buck could see a bunch of cowboys in the street – they were the ones making all the noise. They had a wagon, too, with a coffin in the bed. Regular folk were clearing out of the street as fast as they could.
Except one pretty blond gal in a wine-dark dress, striding right out into the cowboys’ path like she was the law, toting a scattergun. “Whoo-ee, stud, this place is lively, ain’t it?” His interest perked up; there was nothing like a spunky gal, particularly if she was as respectable as this one looked, because they were wild when they let down their hair.
She pointed that shotgun right into the lead cowboy’s face, but clearly she wasn’t expecting to really use it, because he was able to pluck it from her hands with ease and knock her to the ground. “That’s low,” Buck muttered. “Reckon you need a lesson in manners.”
Next thing he noticed was that the rest of the cowboys had a man all trussed up – a tall man with dark skin. They were dragging him down the street behind the wagon toward what looked like a church. And where there was a church, there was sure to be a graveyard – and a convenient hole in the ground to throw that man into, because sure as hell, they were looking to kill him.
For a second – just a bare second – he thought about not doing anything. I don’t know that fella, he thought, turning away from the window even as his guts seemed to turn over inside him. ‘Sides, I should make sure Chris don’t kill himself on his own puke…
Then, glancing out the window again, he saw a skinny fella coming out of the store – the same guy he’d seen pushing a broom there yesterday. He was holding a rifle over his arm, broken open to load it, and it looked like he was having words with the gent who owned the store. Then the skinny fella started up the street in the direction the cowboys had gone, rifle propped across his shoulders.
“Aw, hell.” He grabbed Chris’s gun from his holster and stuck it through his own gun belt, then clattered down the stairs.
He stretched his legs and caught up with the skinny fella before they reached the graveyard; he received a sharp look from blue eyes and a nod. I think Chris is gonna like this guy, he thought, and grinned back.
They rounded the corner of the church and Buck whistled low; this was shaping up to be a real party. The cowboys had propped a coffin up against a tree, and one of them – the one who’d knocked down the pretty gal with the shotgun – had pried off the lid. The tall black man had a noose around his neck and was standing in the bed of the wagon.
“… see your killer swing, Mister Fallon,” said the cowboy to the dead man, grinning like this was the most satisfying thing he’d ever done. And hell, Buck thought, it probably is.
The skinny fella gave Buck a glance, and he sighed; he knew damn right well how Chris would handle this kind of shit, but he wasn’t Chris. He stepped forward, thumbs tucked into his gun belt, grinning his best ingratiating – or maybe irritating – grin. “Well now,” he said loudly, and to a man, the cowboys all twitched and turned. “I don’t know about where you boys are from, but hangin’ a man without a trial is the same thing as murder.”
That gave some of the cowboys pause; he could see it in the glances some of them exchanged. But the one who’d opened the coffin, he was the ringleader. “He killed our boss!”
“I told you, it was gangrene!” a woman called from behind him. Buck glanced over his shoulder, confident that the skinny fella beside him would keep his eyes on the lynch mob. It was the same gal from before, her dress dusty from her fall in the street, but her conviction undimmed. “Nathan didn’t do anything but try to help!”
“He let him die!” the cowboy spat.
“That ain’t what you said before,” the skinny fella observed, his voice raspy.
Buck nodded, tapping his gun belt. “Nosiree, those two things ain’t the same at all, particularly if a body’s got the gangrene. You a doctor, friend?” he said, aiming his words at the black man – Nathan, to go by what the blond woman had said.
“Ain’t no such thing as a darkie doctor,” the cowboy said, and there were mutters of agreement from the others.
“No, I ain’t no doctor!” Nathan protested. “Never said I was. I just try to heal people best I can.”
About what I figured, Buck thought. “All right, you cut him loose. You think he could have done more to save your boss, you wait for a circuit judge, let the law decide.”
“You ain’t the law around here!” one of the other cowboys shouted.
“Neither are you,” the skinny fella retorted. He cocked the rifle, still balanced across his shoulders. “So just ride away, boys.”
The cowboys all looked at each other, like they were sobering up, or maybe coming to their senses. But the lead cowboy wasn’t having any of it; he flicked the loop holding his gun in his holster, grinning. “I think we’ll have a hangin’ first.”
Well, shit. This was about to go to hell in a hurry and no mistake. Buck put his hand on his gun and waited.
He didn’t have to wait long; the cowboy fired first, a quick draw and a wild shot that went over his head and caused the people behind him to scatter. He ducked down behind the nearest grave marker and fired back. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed the skinny fella doing the same. “This town sure knows how to throw a party!” he said, raising his voice over the sound of gunfire and bullets pinging off their makeshift shelter.
The skinny fella flashed him a grin. “About damn time,” he hollered back. “Been waitin’ nigh on a week for somethin’ like this!”
Buck laughed and took aim at the lead cowboy again. The man spun around and fell to the ground, unmoving.
Just then the horses hitched to the wagon spooked and took off, leaving Nathan swinging and slowly strangling. “Oh, hell,” Buck muttered. Don’t think I can get over there to cut him down… There were still a couple of cowboys huddling behind the coffin, and one behind a grave on the opposite side of the cemetery. “Can you get him down?” he shouted to the skinny fella. “I’ll cover ya!”
“I can try,” he heard, and then the other man popped up over his cover to shoot at the rope.
Well, Buck thought, startled, that’s not what I was expecting…
He missed, though, because one of the cowboys leaned out from behind the coffin to take a shot at him, and he had to duck back. Buck got the cowboy with Chris’s gun, having emptied his own. The cowboy fell down, then rolled into the hole in the dirt that was meant for the dead man’s coffin.
The skinny fella’s second shot nicked the rope. Under the strain, it snapped and unwound from around the branch, and the black man fell to the ground in a heap.
The last two cowboys standing decided that enough was enough, and took to their heels. In the sudden absence of gunfire, Buck and the skinny fella stood up from behind the gravestones.
“I got ‘em!” came a voice from behind them. “I got ‘em!”
Buck turned in time to see a kid, pistol in his hand, taking aim at one of the cowboys. “Hey, son!” he bellowed, as loud as he could manage, and was pleased to see the kid twitch and stare at him. “Fight’s over,” he went on in a quieter tone. “No need to shoot a man who’s runnin’ away. Save your bullets.”
“Thanks for the help,” the skinny fella said. “Glad I ain’t the only one who didn’t think this was right.”
He shrugged and shoved Chris’s gun back through his gun belt, put his own in its holster. “Glad I could lend a hand.” After all, it was no one else’s business just what his reasons had been.
He turned to Nathan, still sitting on the ground, and a cowboy he’d thought was dead rose up from behind one of the tombstones. The man wasn’t long for this world, but he still held his gun, and it was pointed at them.
Before he could pull his own gun again, Nathan made a quick motion and the cowboy slumped down again, clearly dead this time. A knife stuck out of his back, quivering.
“One of y’all wanna pull the knife outta that fella, cut me loose?” Nathan said. He still had the rope around his neck, his hands tied in front of him, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. The way he was slumped there beneath the tree, he seemed tired.
The skinny fella strode forward, jerked the knife out of the cowboy’s back, and sawed through the rope, then pulled Nathan to his feet.
“Thanks,” Nathan said, like he knew that words just couldn’t convey what he felt. He pulled the noose from around his neck and dropped it like it was a snake.
“Well now,” Buck said, grinning. “After all that, I think a drink might be in order.”
“Won’t say no to one,” the skinny fella replied, and clapped Nathan on the shoulder. “C’mon, friend, let’s get you a drink.”
There were a few people lingering outside the graveyard, like they had been there for the gunfight but hadn’t wanted to interfere. One of them was the blond woman who’d tried to stop the cowboys, dust still coating the back of her dress; another was the kid. The woman smiled, and Buck felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up at how fake it was.
“Gentlemen,” she said, “I work for the Clarion newspaper. Where did you come from?”
Buck gave her his most charming grin. “Well, I reckon it don’t make a difference where we come from, long as we did what we set out to do.” When the skinny fella turned to look at him, he tilted his head toward the street.
The newspaper woman’s smile disappeared. “But… where are you going?”
“Reckon that don’t matter much either,” Buck replied, grin widening, and then he strode off to catch up with Nathan and the skinny fella.
“’Preciate that,” the skinny fella said. “I don’t need my name gettin’ in any newspapers.”
“Got trouble?” Buck asked. He could use some help riding herd on Chris if this afternoon’s display was any indication, and it seemed like the two of them would have gotten along like a house on fire.
The skinny fella shrugged. “Nothin’ I can’t handle.” He switched his grip on the rifle to free one hand, held it out to Buck as they walked up the street. “Vin Tanner.”
Buck shook his hand. “Buck Wilmington. You sure you wanna…”
Vin just shrugged again. “Just the papers I wanna avoid.” He stepped up on the boardwalk in front of the store in which he’d been working, and offered the rifle back to the proprietor. “Sight’s a little off.”
The proprietor laughed and held up his hands. “Keep it.”
Vin touched his hat in thanks and stepped back down into the street where Buck and Nathan were waiting.
In the town’s other saloon – not the one Chris had destroyed earlier – Buck had just stood Nathan a drink when he glanced into the mirror behind the bar and caught sight of two figures approaching behind him. He turned around as quickly as he could while still making it look casual, and eyed them. One was a black man, older than Nathan by a good few years, and an Indian of the same age.
“We would like to hire you,” the old Indian man said, his voice deep and grave.
Buck tossed back his whiskey and shook his head. “Sorry, I ain’t for hire.” He pushed away from the bar. “If y’all excuse me, my friend is passed out drunk in my room, and I gotta make sure he ain’t died or run off. Nice to meet you.” He touched his hat, then stepped around the two newcomers and out the saloon door.
Chris was still right where he’d left him, and Buck breathed a sigh of relief at that. “Well, stud,” he said, “when you wake up, I’ll have a story to tell you.” He kicked his bedroll open on the floor between the bed and the door, grabbed one of the pillows from under Chris’s head and settled down to wait, hat over his eyes.
September 23, 2017