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By William W. Johnstone
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2006 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen I come off that ridge, there wasn't but one thought in my mind: hunt a hole and crawl in deep. I didn't want to look behind me. I had a pretty good idea what I was gonna see. And that would be a good-sized posse with an already knotted rope. And the necktie party they had in mind was gonna feature me as the honored guest.
If hangin' was ever an honor.
I knew I should have stayed out of that little pissant town. Something warned me that I was lookin' at trouble. But I'd been paid off 'bout ten days back, up in Montana Territory, and I hadn't as yet found me a place to spend none of it. I had me six months' wages-earned hard winterin' in a line shack-and I had me a growlin' belly. I could smell that food a-cookin' in that cafe. Least I thought I could; might have been my imagination. I'd run out of grub a couple of days back and was so hungry I could have et the ass end out of a skunk. Well ... almost.
I sat Critter on that little hill overlookin' the lights of town and ruminated matters around in my head.
I figured I'd passed into Wyoming Territory a few days back-not that it made no difference noways. I didn't have nobody waitin' neither behind nor ahead of me, and I sure wasn't on no schedule.
"What you say, Critter?" I asked my horse.
He just looked at me sort of mournful-like.
I give him his head and down that hill we went. He was as tired as me, I reckon, and lookin' for a warm stall and a bellyful of hay, maybe some corn if he was lucky.
The name of the town was Doubtful. That right there should have warned me off. Who in the hell ever heard of a town called Doubtful? But it looked to me a right nice-sized town, and nobody was shootin' at me. Yet.
The cafe was warm and sort of homey, the food was good, and the gimp-legged, scar-faced man served plenty of it. So after two plates of food and half a dozen cups of coffee, I just naturally headed for a saloon. I had my choice of three. I picked the closest one. Place was near 'bouts deserted, except for a few hard-lookin' ol' boys playin' poker. I bought in. Second mistake of the evenin'.
I could tell after a few hands that I was bein' cold-decked, bottom-dealt, and palmed from the word go. Problem was, they was all so clumsy with it. And that made me mad; like they figured I had just rode in on a turnip wagon and fell off it.
I also noted that they was all wearin' two guns. And you don't see no average puncher packin' that much iron.
So I told them ol' boys, all of 'em, that if they wanted to play poker, why, that was fine with me. But the name of the game was draw, and that meant take the first five off the top and halt.
One of 'em asked me my name and I told him it was Cotton.
They all thought that was funny, all except for this feller dressed in a business suit standin' at the bar drinkin' him a beer and eatin' a hard-boiled egg from the platter.
I slipped the hammer thong off my .44 with my right hand and sorta grinned along with 'em.
If they thought Cotton was funny, I sure as hell wasn't gonna tell 'em my Christian last name.
Then this fat, ugly, young one asked if I was accusin' him of cheatin'. I told him the way he was comin' off the bottom with them pasteboards, it sure looked like it to me.
Then damned if he didn't call me a right ugly name.
Next thing you knowed, they was two of them ol' boys stretched out on the sawdust with holes in them. The air was filled with gunsmoke, the guy eatin' the egg had jumped behind the bar, and I knowed ol' Cotton had done screwed up again.
We just couldn't go no more. My big horse, Critter, was so bad tuckered that he was staggerin'. And I'd be damned if I was gonna kill my good horse over some tinhorn gamblers. 'Specially one that was as ugly as that fat one was.
Or had been.
I found me a stand of timber with a little stream runnin' through it, a sheer rock wall to the back, and a good field of fire to the front. I stripped the saddle off Critter and told him to take him a good roll and a rest.
"And keep your head down when the shootin' starts," I added.
You spend a lot of time with a horse, you get to talkin' to it. I used to try to sing to Critter, but ever'time I done that he bucked me off. I reckon he had him a tin ear.
Surely, it wasn't my singin'. But come to think of it, I did get blamed for stampedin' a herd one time when I was ridin' nighthawk. I blamed it on the weather, but the cook said my singin' sounded like a bear caught in a trap.
I listened to Critter take him a roll and a good long drink, then he got to croppin' at the grass. It was spring, with new grass, but this high up, it's liable to be warm and then an hour later, start snowin'. When he finished chompin', I picketed him and got back into position, my Henry at the ready, all full and ready to bark and snarl.
Damn, but I was tired. I wasn't much worried about nobody slippin' up on me. Critter was better than any watchdog I'd ever seen; he'd warn me. So I just put my head down on my forearm and closed my eyes.
Critter's soft nickering woke me up. I opened my eyes to a real pretty day. Sun shinin' and warm and lazy-like. I couldn't help wonderin' if this was gonna be my last pretty day, 'cause when I looked around, there was about twenty men sittin' on their horses about two hundred and fifty yards off.
I wished I had me a cup of coffee. I'm a coffee-drinkin' man, and I just hate to start the morning with no cup of coffee. 'Course, I didn't feel like endin' no morning with no cup, neither.
"You crazy son of a bitch!" a man yelled at me. I reckon he was hollerin' at me, wasn't nobody else around.
I kept my mouth shut and listened.
Wasn't much else I could do, boxed in like I was.
"You, there! Man who called hisself Cotton. We know you're down there in that holler. Ain't nobody gonna hurt you. We got a proposition for you, that's all."
I looked back at Critter, lookin' at me. And from the look on his face, he didn't believe the guy neither.
"Look here, now! Don't start no shootin', Mister Cotton."
Mister Cotton! Mighty damn formal name-callin' from a bunch of people who was fixin' to hang me.
I decided to give it a whirl. Damn near anything beats hangin'. I peeked out and squinted my eyes and spotted that feller who had been gnawin' on that egg in the saloon. "I hear you! What do you want?"
"That there was Jack Nolan you kilt back yonder in the saloon. The other one was his partner, the fat one. Name of Larson. Both of them was gunslingers."
I'd heard of 'em. Figured they was some better than that.
"Is that right? Well," I hollered. "They couldn't drag iron no better than they played cards!"
"You plenty fast, Mister Cotton. Might be the man we want. You want a job?"
"I ain't lookin' for one."
"We'll pay you a hundred a month and give you a place to stay."
A hundred a month! Hell, it'd take the average cowboy damn near six months to earn that much, unless they was drawin' fightin' wages. "What's the catch?"
"There ain't no catch! Damn, you shore are suspicious. How about the job?"
"What kind of job you talkin' about?"
I could see them talkin' amongst themselves up there on the ridge. They was out in the open, and I could probably knock two or three out of the saddle. But they wasn't actin' hostile, and I didn't see no one wavin' no rope around.
"We'll give you a hundred and twenty-five a month, Mister Cotton!"
"What kind of damn job are you jabberin' about, anyways?"
When he told me, I just sort of hunkered there in that holler and was stunned-like. I been a lot of things in my time, but this one took the cake.
I was still sort of not believin' it when they handed me the badge. Sheriff of Puma County, Wyoming Territory.
I looked down at the badge in my hand. "I thought there was supposed to be an election before someone got to be sheriff."
George Waller, the man who'd been chewin' on that egg, and who was the Mayor of Doubtful, and who'd just sworn me in, in a manner of mumbling, cleared that up right quick-sort of. "There was. We had it last night, right after you kilt them gunhands. Everybody that was in town voted for you. Congratulations, Sheriff Cotton. That is your rightful Christian name, ain't it?"
When I had to be, I was as good at mumblin' as he was. "One of 'em, yeah. How about the folks out in the country, the ranchers?"
"We rung the town bell," the scar-faced, gimp-legged cafe man said. "If they didn't hear it, that was their hard luck. We out-vote them anyways."
"Uh-huh. Well, am I supposed to handle the whole county by myself?"
"Oh, no!" the mayor said. "You can have up to four deputies. Problem is, nobody wants the job." He looked like he was unhappy he told me that.
"But that don't mean there ain't men to be had," the woman who ran a boardin' house piped up.
I took one look at her-and once a day would be plenty-and figured she'd know if there was a man to be had anywhere in the Territory. That woman, Belle something-or-the-other, was so ugly she could stop an eagle in a dive-just by lookin' at it.
I scratched my woolly head-woolly 'cause I ain't had a bath in two weeks-and done some thinkin'.
Now ... I ain't never took myself to be no real intelligent fellow. My momma, God rest her soul, didn't have to hide me under no bucket 'cause of my brilliance. I can read and write and figger some ...
"Sheriff ...?" George said.
... I can bust near'bouts any horse I ever tossed a saddle on, and I can ride and rope with the best of 'em. And, I got to admit, I'm more than passin' fair with a six-gun, too.
"You ain't thinkin' about backin' out, are you, Sheriff?" George asked.
"No, I ain't. I'm ... prayin', that's what I'm doin'."
"Let's all bow our heads, too," Belle suggested.
"Fine. Lemme get done with mine and then we'll talk some more."
They all took to mumblin', and I went back to thinkin'.
And, I got to say, I've ridden the hoot-owl trail a time or two ... but not because I broke any laws. I'm just sort of a curious type, that's all. I wanted to see how the outlaws lived. According to them penny-dreadful books they was all glamorous. But I soon found out they lived mighty damned sorry, that's how.
"Hallelujah!" Belle hollered.
I like to have jumped out of my boots.
"Hush!" George said.
Before she took a runnin' a boardin' house, Belle must have had her a job callin' hogs!
Top hand. That's me. Cotton. I don't use my last name much. I ain't ashamed of it, I just figure Cotton will do. I've punched cows from Texas to Montana Territory. I been over the Bitterroot and seen the ocean. Took my breath away. Damn near as much as that place folks got to callin' the Grand Canyon. It's grand, all right. I seen it just after Major Powell come along in '69. But I got lost as a goose in there. Took me three days to find my way out. I don't talk about that much.
But this job. There was something about this here sheriff-in' job that just wasn't shapin' up right in my mind.
I looked up. Everybody was lookin' at me.
"What happened to the last sheriff?"
"Uh ... why, he up and quit," George said. I reckoned he knew I'd find out anyways.
"And the one before him?"
"He got roped and drug," the cafe man said.
"And the one before him?"
"He got kilt," Belle said.
Now I was gettin' down to the facts. "Who killed him and why?"
"Gunhands from the Circle L," the cafe man said. "Right out there in front of my place." He pointed. "They kilt him in a fair fight. And 'cause he was a coward and they knowed it."
"Baited him like you would a bull, huh?"
I thought a mite longer. Now, if I could stick it out for a year, I could have me a right nice poke. By livin' close, I could gave a thousand. And that could get me started on a small spread.
I looked at that cafe man kinda hard. "I get my meals free."
"Now, see here! You et enough las' night for three people."
But George give him an eyeballin' and he closed his mouth. They probably figured I'd be dead in a month anyways. "Certainly, Sheriff," the mayor said. "That's fine."
"And I ain't buyin' my own lead, neither."
"That's perfectly understandable. Get them at my store."
Belle batted her eyelashes at me. Plumb sickenin'.
"Where do I bunk?"
George swelled up like a coon in the moonlight. "Right there." He pointed toward the rear. "Got you two nice rooms back yonder and a two-hole privy out back. It's even got a back-flap for better ventilation."
Belle giggled. Sounded like a rattlesnake caught in a tin bucket.
"OK," I said, "You folks got yourself a sheriff."
They all shook my hand and Belle puckered up. But I shook her hand too. She just grinned big and batted her eyes and then sashayed out to the boardwalk, her bustle a-jumpin' from right to left. You ever followed a cow? You know what I mean. With that rear end of hers, she didn't need no extra girth. Two ax handles wide as it was.
I stuck the badge in my pocket and began unpackin' my kit and war bag. I was gonna have to buy me some new duds-mine was shabby-lookin'. Diggin' down in my war bag, I fished out my second gun. I seldom wore it, 'cause don't nobody but tinhorms and trouble-hunters and them lookin' for a reputation pack around two short guns. Well ... maybe another type: lawmen totin' a big badge that makes 'em a handy target.
Walkin' over to Leonard Silverman's Emporium, I got me a better look at the town of Doubtful. It was some bigger than I gleaned at night. Two full blocks of stores on either side. Several saloons, couple of general stores, a hotel, leather shop, smithy, a dress shop-spelt with two P's and two E's; didn't look right to me-and half a dozen older businesses I'd have to look at closer.
Now, I reckon I did look like a saddle bum, but that wasn't no excuse for what happened next. I wasn't dressed up like no dandy. Old wore-out jeans and a shirt with the elbows ragged. My left boot had a piece of rawhide tied around it to keep the sole from flappin'. But I ain't never believed in makin' fun of other folks just 'cause they wasn't dressed to the nines.
I heard the riders, and they was comin' hard, kickin' up dust like a bunch of idiots and shootin' pistols into the air and whoopin' and hollerin'. And me? I was caught right in the middle of that street.
Must have been a dozen hands, and one woman. And that woman was ridin' astride. I've seen plenty of squaws ride that way, but never no white woman. It kinda come as a shock to me.
"Ride him down!" that woman screamed, for no good reason that I could think of. "Nobody stands in our way."
Now that made me mad.
I never could abide no one that thought he or she was so almighty big they could just run over other people. I have whupped more than two or three in my time.
Them ol' boys come a-foggin' straight at me. I stepped back, judged the speed of that lead hoss, and when he come even with me, I just reached up and snatched that redheaded young rider off the horse and flung him not-too-gently to the dirt.
The brand on the horse's hip that the horse's ass had been ridin' was Circle L.
The wind was knocked out of the cowboy on the ground, but them others had made the turn down at the far end of the street and was lookin' at me. That she-person sittin' astride had hate in her eyes that I could read from this distance.
Me? I just quick-stepped on across that street and was up on the boardwalk 'fore they could do anything more about it.
"Somebody get Rusty!" the woman yelled. "We'll deal with that saddle tramp later."
So now I was a saddle tramp. Well, hell, I'd been called a lot worse than that.
Leanin' against the support post of the awning over the boardwalk, I watched as the woman said something to a big gent on a midnight-black horse. He rode down my way, wheeled in, and sat starin' at me.
The gent was a big, handsome-lookin' man, and his clothes was expensive-lookin'. I say handsome, but his face was cruel-lookin'.
Real slow and dramatic-like, he dug in a pocket of his leather vest and hauled out a timepiece, smilin' at me as he clicked it open.
"Two hours," he said, clickin' the watch shut. "That's how long we're gonna be in town. And that's how long you got 'til you get roped and dragged. No saddle bum puts a hand on any Circle L rider."
"You the one who roped and drug one of the lawmen a time back?"
His eyes narrowed. I reckon he was tryin' to figure out how I came to know that.
"You're a nosy bastard, ain't you, saddle bum?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Let's just say I'm the curious type. And you didn't answer my question, neither."
"Why should I waste my time talking to a tramp?"
Excerpted from Blood Valley by William W. Johnstone Copyright © 2006 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
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