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When you live the sort of life I do—the life of a hired gun—you start to figure you can handle any tough hand who comes along. But the tough hand I had to drill right between the eyes just happened to be a Flynn. And even though it was self-defense, there's no way his pa and the rest of the clan wouldn't come after me. In a wild race across the frozen prairie, their first bullet killed my horse and their second caught me right in the thigh. But it was what happened next that ...
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When you live the sort of life I do—the life of a hired gun—you start to figure you can handle any tough hand who comes along. But the tough hand I had to drill right between the eyes just happened to be a Flynn. And even though it was self-defense, there's no way his pa and the rest of the clan wouldn't come after me. In a wild race across the frozen prairie, their first bullet killed my horse and their second caught me right in the thigh. But it was what happened next that changed my life forever. ...
It started on a cold, windy day in late March, 1876. I was just twenty-one, but already the name Bill Lang meant something. I had made enough of a reputation as a gunfighter to hold a job with a big cattle outfit in southern Colorado just out of Trinidad. We had a range war going and I'd been earning fighting wages until a county election brought in a new sheriff. After that I found it expedient to leave the country.
Most of the men who had been working with me dropped south into New Mexico, but I'd had some trouble down there and I decided to ride the other way into Wyoming. I'd spent a year on Powder River with an old mountain man named Burke Teller, so I knew a little bit about the country and I liked it.
Besides, there is always a question of where a man is going when he has to move. I didn't care much for Kansas or Nebraska and I figured the Mormons wouldn't welcome me if I landed up in Utah. The Texas Rangers were anxious to have my company, but I didn't want theirs, so Wyoming seemed the logical place. The only thing was I had forgotten how far it was from Trinidad to Cheyenne, especially in March with six inches of snow on the ground.
Cheyenne looked good to me. Real good. I hadn't hurried out of Colorado, but there were a couple of dead men down there on the Picketwire, and sooner or later that long-nosed sheriff in Trinidad was going to put one and one together and figure out it made two, me and another gunslinger who was in Santa Fé by this time. No, I sure hadn't hurried, but I hadn't let any grass grow under the hoofs of my buckskin gelding, either.
I left my horse in a livery stable with orders to give him a double bait of oats, thinking I wouldn't be forking him for a week at least. I took a room in the Inter-Ocean Hotel on Sixteenth Street and sat down at a table in the dining room and had a steak a foot long, four cups of coffee, and a slab of apple pie.
After that I felt like a new man. I stepped into a saloon, had one drink, and took a hand in a poker game. My luck ran high. I raked in three pots in a row that added up to better than one hundred dollars, and I asked myself why I risked my hide in a range war when I could get rich in a poker game. Then it happened.
The man sitting across from me was tall and skinny with two very black eyes crowding a saber-sharp nose. His skin was dark. I've seen Indians who weren't much darker, so I figured he was a half-breed. He was young, about my age, I judged. I didn't know who he was and I didn't care.
The saloon was crowded with soldiers from Fort D.A. Russell, cowboys, freighters, townsmen, and Black Hillers waiting for the weather to break so they could hit the road north. One minute there was a lot of racket going on-loud talk and glasses clinking and a piano player knocking out "Yellow Rose of Texas"-then all of a sudden the racket stopped and I didn't hear a sound except the heavy breathing of many men.
The skinny fellow had shoved his chair back and he'd said, loud and clear: "I seen how you dealt that last hand. You're a cheating son-of-a-bitch."
The other men at the table spilled out of their chairs so fast you'd have thought a swarm of bees had moved in on them. I guess everybody in the room got the word judging by the way the noise stopped. I still didn't know who the skinny man was and I still didn't care because, when you've lived the kind of life I had for the last three years, you get so you figure you can handle any tough hand who comes along.
This fellow was a tough hand, all right. He sat there staring at me, his black eyes boring into mine while he waited for me to make a move. A couple of men standing at the bar started toward me, then changed their minds and stopped and backed up to the bar. After that they just stood there, watching.
Hell, I wasn't looking for trouble. All I'd wanted was to get out of the wind and have a drink and a few hands of poker. I hadn't cheated. As a matter of fact, I never had cheated at cards. It just didn't seem worthwhile. If I was going to cheat, I'd cheat big the way cattlemen and politicians do. But it was not a proposition of me looking for trouble. Here it was, in full bloom right in front of me.
I didn't have any choice. I got up out of my chair and pulled my gun and I drilled the skinny man right between the eyes. He was out of his chair, too, and he yanked his gun out of leather, but when he pulled the trigger, he was dead and going down. All his bullet did was to bore a hole in the green top of the poker table.
As soon as I holstered my gun, I looked around to see if there was a lawman in the place because I wanted to be cleared then and there. It took a few seconds for the crowd to catch up with what had happened. The men acted as if they were stunned, then a dozen or more came up and shook hands and patted me on the back and told me to get the hell out of Cheyenne.
When I could make myself heard, I asked: "Why should I get out of Cheyenne? Do you arrest a man for shooting in self-defense?"
One of the men who had been standing at the bar and had started toward me was a businessman. He looked important, a banker maybe. He wore a brown broadcloth suit and an elk's tooth that dangled from a gold chain that hung across his vest.
"No, we don't," this fellow said. "If you were arrested, you would soon be released on the grounds of justifiable homicide. The proposition is that the man you just killed is one of the Flynn brothers. Old Mike Flynn has a ranch on Pole Creek. He'll never forgive you for killing his boy. One of his cowhands took out of here just now, so Mike will hear about it in two, three hours. He'll saddle up along with the rest of his sons and they'll come after you."
I didn't like the notion of running and I said so. Another man, a judge, I figured, was tall and appeared very impressive with his white hair and white beard and mustache. He said with a hint of a Southern drawl: "Mister, you're a stranger in town. Chances are you don't know anything about the Flynns. Old Mike's got a Sioux squaw who's the mother of his six boys. They're tough. They're more like their mother's people than they are old Mike's. You can't hope to fight all of them and live to tell about it."
I still didn't get the full picture. I said: "I've bucked long odds before and I'm still alive. I've been riding four, five days and I'm tired."
They looked at each other and swallowed and shifted around from one foot to the other, then the man I took for a judge cleared his throat. He said: "Mister, you're going to have to ride a little more. If you're still in Cheyenne, the Flynn outfit will come to town and tear it apart. We don't want that to happen again. We don't owe you anything, so, to save your life and us a lot of trouble, get on your horse and slope out of here."
The man with the elk's tooth on his watch chain nodded. "Why don't you take a sashay up to Fort Laramie? The Flynns never go there. They don't get along with the Army very well. In fact, they don't get along with the ranchers up there on the Chug very well, either."
I didn't care much about fighting the town of Cheyenne and it began to look as if it was going to stack up that way. It didn't take any smart man to see that this bunch wasn't as friendly as it had been a few minutes before. They sure didn't want the Flynn outfit coming into town to find me. For them it was a simple proposition of taking on one man instead of Flynn and his sons.
"That's a good idea," I said to the man with the elk's tooth. "I'll probably like Fort Laramie."
I left the saloon, got my war sack out of the hotel room I'd rented, paid at the desk for a bed I hadn't used, and saddled my buckskin and rode north. I thought I'd make it to Fort Laramie in two days, but I was wrong. It was two months before I saw the place.
Excerpted from Bitter Wind by Wayne D. Overholser Copyright © 2006 by The Estate Wayne D. Overholser. Excerpted by permission.
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