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The Good, The Bad, And The Equine

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Medora, Dakota Territory, June 1884:

Amber liquid splashed into Charlie's glass, and Charlie in turn carelessly dropped a few coins onto the scarred wood of the bar. "Leave the bottle," he ordered before said object could be withdrawn. The bartender nodded, took Charlie's money, and retreated to the other end of the bar, which suited Charlie Prince just fine.

He picked up his glass, turned to lean with his back against the bar, and surveyed the room. It looked like it could hold a fair number of people when the occasion arose, but at the moment he had the place practically to himself. Aside from Charlie and the bartender, there was only a pair of guys at a table off in the far corner, and they seemed smart enough to recognize that he was in no mood to chat. More people would probably start filtering in as it got later, but right now it was only the very beginning of the evening, one of those ridiculously long evenings of the sort you never got further south. It wouldn't be full dark for hours yet, and Charlie planned to be out of here by then, if not out of this worthless town then at least gone to some more entertaining locale within it.

Charlie took a swallow of his drink but didn't toss back the whole thing. He wasn't looking to get shitfaced yet, just pass some time. There was a newspaper declaring itself to be The Cowboy sitting on one of the stools next to him, so Charlie picked it up and started reading, because why the hell not?

The Boss had brought the gang up north with the plan to hit the new stage line that ran between Medora and Deadwood. With all the gold coming out of the Black Hills and Medora being the closest railhead, it should have been an easy chance for an even better haul than they got intercepting railroad payrolls. The only problem was that, when they got to town, they learned that the stage line didn't actually exist yet.

Asking around only produced a lot of shrugs from the locals and comments about how the Marquis de Mores liked to think that if he just told a lie often enough then the rest of the world would eventually bend over to make it true, with the nonexistent stage line only being the latest in a long string of repeat offences. There might be a stage line someday, but no one was going to hold their breath waiting for it, and if the newcomers really needed to get to Deadwood that badly, then there was a pair of men in town who could be hired to drive a mule team there on the occasions when they could be convinced to stay sober long enough.

And that had been that.

Some of the gang, especially Tommy Darden, wanted to head west and try their usual tricks on the Northern Pacific Railroad while they were up here, but the Boss had pointed out that the Northern Pacific was currently laying tracks through the Cascades, which was different terrain than they were used to, and that none of them knew the territory, so they were heading south again just as soon as they had let the horses rest for a couple of days. At least they were far enough from their usual stomping grounds that they didn't need to bother trying to lay low from the law in the meantime. In fact, most of the gang was off whoring right now. Charlie had planned to stick close to the Boss, right up until the Boss had struck up a conversation with some dude of a ranch owner. They had started talking about politics, moved on to political reform, and sounded like they were drifting into the realms of philosophy when Charlie made his escape to his current location.

Charlie was only halfway through reading the first page of the newspaper when someone new entered the saloon. The guy was tall and wore a single gun on his left hip, nothing fancy, probably just a standard Colt Single Action Army if Charlie had to guess, but neither the gun nor the holster had the look of a weapon only worn for show and never used. He had wavy dark hair and a few days' worth of stubble on the kind of chin that could stab someone's eye out, and he looked to be somewhere in his mid-twenties. The guy wasn't anyone Charlie recognized, but whoever he was, he strode towards the bar as though he thought he was cock of the walk. However, that confident strut was almost immediately interrupted and replaced by a full-body groan of exasperation when the doors were thrown open yet again and a horse squeezed itself half way into the saloon.

"Comet, no," the man practically whined. "I told you to wait outside." He tried pushing the horse, but when the animal refused to back up, he was forced to grab the dangling reins and pull the horse the rest of the way inside so he could turn it around before leading it outside again. The man's words of, "Now stay, and don't you dare untie that knot again," drifted in from outside, soon followed by the return of the man himself. Looking much less cocky this time, he crossed the room and dropped onto a stool at the bar. "Sorry, you know how it goes when you get a new horse" he said apologetically to Charlie, as if he expected Charlie to give a shit about any of this. "They're always testing to see how much you'll let them get away with, taking your reading material without asking and then spoiling how the story ends, trying to establish dominance by criticizing your life choices, and all the usual sorts of things."

Charlie pointedly said nothing and went back to reading his newspaper. Prior to being interrupted, he had just gotten to an article announcing the death of Allan Pinkerton, and he wanted to see if it mentioned who had finally plugged the bastard.

The guy seemed to take the hint and turned away to signal the bartender over and order a beer. Unfortunately, his silence did not last. "Hey," he said as soon as he had gotten his drink and downed half of it, "you wouldn't happen to know how to get to the Elkhorn Ranch from here, would you?"

"Why you asking?" Charlie said, setting aside his paper. "You the law?" He had meant it as a joke, but even before the words were fully out of his mouth, he suspected he might be right. He couldn't see a badge anywhere, but now that he was looking, there was just something about the other guy that screamed, 'copper,' even if he did seem a little cracked in the head. Charlie didn't put a hand on either of his guns, but only because he knew he didn't need to yet. Aside from the great Ben Wade himself, Charlie Prince had met very few people who were faster on the draw than he was. If it came down to a fight, he was confident that he'd be the one to shoot first, regardless of where his hands were at the start. He did however flick the tails of his coat out of the way, just in case.

"I'm not the law, just a law student," the man said. His left hand stayed still as a stone where it rested against the edge of the bar, and his right hand remained wrapped around the handle of his beer mug, but his gaze darted briefly downward to take in the sight of the newly exposed pair of Schofields. "I was just in the area and thought I'd drop in on an old friend from my undergrad days." His shrug might have appeared careless if not for the way that he pointedly executed it in slow notion.

Charlie scowled. "I hate lawyers," he said.

The pair of men from the table in the corner bestirred themselves and scuttled for the door, keeping as much distance between themselves and Charlie as possible at all times. The bartender appeared to have vanished too. Now if only Charlie's would be conversational partner could be equally obliging. No such luck, though.

"Well, I'm not a lawyer yet, so how about we just pretend I never mentioned it," the man said, all smiles. "In fact, let's start over." He set his beer on the bar and extended a hand for Charlie to shake. "The name's County, Brisco County, Jr."

"Brisco County!?" Charlie snarled.

County's eyes went wide, no doubt recognizing what that particular tone of voice promised, and Charlie had to give him credit where it was due, because the man was fast. By the time Charlie got his gun up and pulled the trigger, County was already out of the way, vaulting over the bar. The seat of County's recently vacated stool blasted apart into splinters as Charlie's bullet hit it, but Charlie was too busy following the arc of his target's leap with his other gun to notice. His second shot just barely grazed the leather of one of County's boots as it disappeared out of sight.

"What the hell was that for," County shouted from somewhere under the bar.

"I hate marshals even more than I hate lawyers," Charlie said.

"I'm Brisco County, Jr., Junior! My father's the marshal, not me," County insisted.

"Of course you'd say something like that to save your worthless life," Charlie said.

"He's been famous for over fifteen years. Do you think I've been wearing a tin star since before puberty?"

"Don't really care," Charlie said. He leaned over the counter to see if he could get a clear shot, but had to jump out of the way when a thrown mug whistled past his ear and smashed somewhere behind him. Well, he had been hoping for some entertainment, and here it was. Changing tactics, Charlie took a few more steps back and shot low through the bar with both guns (nobody ever bothered to build a bar with thick enough wood to stop a bullet worth a damn down the front, not in cities and sure as hell not in podunk towns like this one where all supplies needed to be shipped in), down near what should be chest level for somebody sitting on the floor and spaced a couple of feet apart to increase his chances of landing a hit. He heard more glass break, but if County had been hit then he was keeping quiet about it. Charlie put another bullet hole in the thin wood facing, right between the first two, just to be sure.

This time, County answered with a wild shot of his own. Charlie wasn't sure which direction County had been pointing when he fired his gun, but he heard the bullet ricochet off at least six different places around the room before feeling collide with his shoulder, hard enough to bruise but not enough to penetrate the leather of his coat. A second wild shot pointing who knew where, more ricochets, and this time the misshapen remains of a bullet bounced hard off of his other shoulder.

"Son of a bitch," Charlie said, half laughing now, because what was a little pain compared to the sheer ridiculousness of the coincidence. The Boss was going to be sorry to have missed this when he heard about it later. "It's been fun, Marshal, but that's the last lucky shot you're ever going to get."

"I wouldn't count on it," County said, then gave a piercing whistle, followed by yet another improbable shot which managed to send the saloon's wagon wheel chandelier swinging, break a taxidermy deer head's left antler, and then knock Charlie's hat off. It would have been impressive if there had been any chance that County was actually doing it on purpose.

Deciding he had had enough and that it was time to get to the good part, Charlie started firing into the front of bar again, methodically working outward from his initial shots, knowing he had a good chance of hitting County before needing to reload, when he heard an angry neighing from behind him, and a flailing hoof collided with his head. He pitched forward onto the floor with a groan, and when he tried to get up again, he felt a very horseshoe sized weight come down between his shoulder blades, not with any great speed or force, but very deliberately. Charlie groped blindly for his guns, because his head was still ringing too much for him to be able to focus on anything yet, but as he did so, the weight his back increased and a warm horsey breath was snorted directly into his ear. When Charlie stopped moving his hands, the horse whickered and withdrew some, but not all, of the pressure.

"Good job, Comet," County said, finally crawling out from behind the bar. He stood, dusted a few splinters off of his shoulders, and then walked over to pat the horse on the neck and kick Charlie's guns further out of reach. Then he produced a length of cord from somewhere and bent town to tie Charlie's hands behind his back. As soon as the knots were pulled tight, the horse lifted its hoof off of his back and stepped to the side.

"The Boss'll have me free before sunrise, Marshal," Charlie spat into the dirty boards pressed against his face.

"I told you, I'm not a marshal," County said. "I'm a law student, and I was supposed to be on vacation." He stood with a sigh. "We could have each had our drinks and then gone our separate ways. You didn't want to play nice, though, so here we are with you tied up and me having to work." He hauled Charlie to his feet and looked him in the eye. "My life may be worthless, as you say, but you, Charlie Prince, have a big enough bounty on your head that I won't need to take another job until after graduation. C'mon, Comet, let's go hand off Bonny Prince Charlie here to the police so we can go back to trying to find out how to get to TR's place."

The horse neighed and shook out its mane, and County nodded along as if the animal had just said something intelligible.

"Yeah, go ahead. You've earned it." County gave the horse another pat then started pulling Charlie towards the door. "I'll meet you back here when I'm done," County called over his shoulder, but the horse was already walking deeper into the saloon, towards the bartender, who had reappeared from wherever he had been hiding and was now surveying the damage with a look of resignation.

The horse neighed and stomped on the floor twice. As County dragged him out into the lingering sunlight, Charlie would have sworn he heard the bartender say, "So, why the long face?"

The End