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High Gun at Surlock
By Terrell L. Bowers
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2006 Terrell L. Bowers
All rights reserved.
Vince Templeton had known Judge Tate for many years. The judge and his father had been close friends. Vince had struck out on his own a few years previously and had returned to Cheyenne for his father's funeral. He'd been back in town less than a week and had already managed to get himself in trouble with the law. Other than shaking hands with Tate at the funeral service, this was the first time he had faced the judge.
Judge Tate was a man of impressive size and stature. Even behind his desk and pushing fifty years of age, he appeared a formidable man. He looked over his spectacles at Vince, sighed mightily and gave a shake of his gray head.
'Vincent, I'm told you started a fight with the mayor's son yesterday.'
'Reckon that's the truth of it, Your Honor,' Vince admitted.
'What justification do you offer for engaging in a brawl with Mr Elder?'
'Your Honor,' Vince explained, 'Seth Elder was stomping all over some young gent about half his size. I offered to give him a more fair match.'
'Busted him in the nose,' he said. 'Coaxed a fight out of him right quick.'
'And then you whipped him.' It was a statement.
'Yes, sir, Judge,' Vince declared. 'Did a right thorough job too.'
Tate allowed a grim smile at his honesty and looked down at Vince's hands.
'I don't see any cuts or scraps on your knuckles.'
'No, sir, I put on my cowhides before I laid in to him. I didn't aim to bust a knuckle on his teeth.'
'Suffice to say, the mayor is not keen about someone pummeling his boy.'
'Maybe not, Judge, but I was preventing a beating.'
'Uh-huh,' said Tate. 'You stopped a beating by dealing out a beating yourself. The combatants change, but the result is the same.'
'That's a rather narrow way of looking at it,' Vince argued. 'If a bully gets himself a whupping, it ought to be a good thing.'
Tate took a long moment, as if collecting his thoughts.
'The mayor insists I sentence you to serve time in jail.'
'If he had offered to throw me a party I'd have been a whole lot more surprised.'
'He might agree to a necktie party,' Judge Tate quipped.
Vince grinned. 'Given a choice, I'd rather do the time, Your Honor.'
'There might be another option,' Tate said. 'I received a letter in my mail yesterday, a request for help. You might be the right man for the job.'
'A job? For me?'
'I spoke to the US marshal about it, but he doesn't have a capable man to send. When I mentioned you, he agreed to let you undertake the chore.'
Vince grew wary. 'This can't be something good, else you wouldn't be holding a jail sentence over my head before bringing it up.'
'Your dad told me you worked for a traveling carnival some time back. That where you learned to fight?'
'Yep. Did some sparring with the boxing champ we had traveling with the show. I filled in for him whenever he was feeling poorly. Mostly, I stuck with trick-shooting and showing off as a fast-draw artist.'
'Your pa claimed you were the best "honest" trick-shooter he ever saw,' the judge continued to speak of his past.
'I never did resort to using special buckshot loads to hit what I aimed at,' Vince responded. 'I don't care for cheaters.'
'He said your favorite trick was to have two people drop beer-mugs at the same time. You would draw and shoot both mugs before they hit the ground.'
'I've had to do the trick more than once some days to get both mugs.'
Tate smiled again at Vince's honesty.
'The job is over in Surlock, up near the Wyoming border. Two freight outfits are in a battle for control of the shipping business. With a lot of gold being hauled out of the Dakotas, there is a demand for moving freight, supplies and ore. Plus, there is also a stage line. However, there isn't enough business for two different express companies. The Yates Freight Company has been working that neck of the woods for years, but H & B Transport has moved in with more men and money. There's been a killing, several robberies and wagons have been burned or wrecked. It sounds like the start of a bloody war.'
'What do you want from me?'
'The US marshal needs to appoint a deputy to look into the trouble there. This rivalry needs to be settled without any more people getting killed.'
'You want me?' Vince gasped in shock. 'To be a deputy?'
'That's the job, Vincent.'
'I'm no lawman and I've never been to Surlock, Judge. How am I supposed to go about finding out who is behind the trouble and sabotage?'
'The marshal told me Charles Huxton has hired a new hardcase to come to work for him as a teamster. He's never met Kyler Dane and I remember you hauled freight for a living a few years back. This Dane fits your description, but he won't be able to make the trip.' With a grin he added: 'The marshal has him behind bars awaiting trial in Denver.'
'So you want me to pretend to be this Dane character,' said Vince.
'That's right. Kyler Dane has his name on a wanted poster from Colorado – assault and robbery. You need to remember you robbed a saloon over at Canyon City and that you pistol-whipped the bartender.'
'Why would Huxton hire a wanted man, one he has never met?'
'I suspect he wanted a man who was good with a gun and who would do what he was told without conscience or question. Dane told the marshal he had been hired sight unseen, through a third party. He gave up the information in hopes that a judge would take in to account that he is being co-operative. He claims he doesn't know anyone over in Surlock. You only need to convince Huxton that you're desperate for a job and have a shady past. He won't doubt you're the man he sent for.'
'If I do get the job, then what?'
'Find out whatever you can. If there's crooked dealings going on, get us the proof and send me a wire. The marshal will come down and make the necessary arrests.'
Vince was still perplexed. He had gone from being a likely inmate at a jail one minute to a deputy US marshal the next. It was a bizarre adjustment. Even as he frowned in thought, Tate handed him a piece of paper and a badge.
'This pay voucher is good for a hundred dollars at any bank or Wells Fargo office,' he told Vince. 'It should be plenty to set you up, until you start drawing wages. If you find proof of criminal activity you'll have to testify in court. After that you can turn in your badge and go on with your life. How does that sound?'
'Sounds to me like you ought to be the one locked up, Judge. I'm fixing to think your clock stopped at thirteen!'
Tate gave a dismissive wave of his hand.
'We don't have enough lawmen to look into every complaint or request that finds its way to our desks. The territory is too big and there simply isn't the manpower to do the job. The marshal's office hires special deputies all the time. Some are permanent, while others are employed for individual cases. This is a chance for you to do something worthwhile with your life.'
'That's it then?' Vince clarified. 'I'm to snoop around and see who is doing what. If laws are being broke, I dig up evidence on the guilty party and send word to you.'
'You've got the idea,' Tate said. Then he put a level gaze on Vince. 'What do you say, son? Are you willing to do this little job for me, or should I throw you in jail for assault and look elsewhere?'
'I don't know beans about being an undercover lawman, but it sure beats sitting behind bars for the next few weeks. I'll ride over to Surlock and see if I can convince Huxton that I'm Kyler Dane. If he takes the bait, I'll see what I can find out.'
Tate stuck out his hand. 'I know you'll do a good job, my boy.'
Charles Huxton stood at the window of the bank and stared after the two freight wagons pulling out of town. There was a good business here, but only if he eliminated the competition. He had talked big and assured his sister-in-law, Alma Bailey Huxton, that he would make her a lot of money. She expected results and was not the sort to be patient.
'What do you think?' George, the bank-owner asked, breaking into his thoughts. 'You haven't gotten many contracts from the big mine-owners to this point. Most of them are staying with the Yates family.'
'That is not your concern,' Huxton told him. 'We have a deal. I'll handle my end of things and you handle your own. I'll figure a way to get the contracts I need.'
'I didn't count on any violence,' the banker whined. 'I was fifty feet away when your man, Strap, shot and killed Cory Yates out in the street!' The man shook his head. 'That kind of thing doesn't look good, Charles. It might bring the law down on us.'
'The law can't prevent two men from having an argument, George. Besides, one less Yates makes it harder for them to keep their schedules. Each time they can't make their deliveries, it affords me the opportunity to pick up another of their contracts. I didn't give Strap the order to kill Cory, but it works to our advantage.'
George was not satisfied. 'Maybe so, but I've done business with Big Mike's family ever since I opened the bank. I hate to see their family being ruined and killed.'
'It's like I told you at the beginning,' Huxton explained, 'there's room for both freight companies. I only want a fair share of the business. I need a few more contracts to haul ore from the mines and transport supplies for the numerous businessmen of Surlock. With the added business and my own stage run, I can make a go of it.'
'You still have to take the business away from Big Mike.'
'He and his family have had the run of the place since this land was settled. It's time they learned to share the wealth.'
'Yeah, I see what ...' The banker ceased speaking at the knock on the office door. It opened half-way and Huxton's clerk stuck her head into the room.
'Sorry to interrupt, Mr Huxton, but there is a gentleman to see you. He said his name is Kyler Dane and that you were expecting him.'
'Yes, Wanda,' he replied to the woman. 'Send him in.'
At the banker's curious frown, Huxton escorted him to the door.
'I'll talk to you later, George. This is someone I have to speak to in private.'
'Certainly, I understand.'
Vince's heart pounded in his chest like a stampeding steer. He reminded himself, my name is Kyler Dane. I'm a wanted man. Kyler Dane, desperado, bad guy, on the run.
'Sir,' the woman's words jolted through him like a lightning strike, 'Mr Huxton says you can go right in.'
Kyler smothered the instant foreboding, uttered a polite 'thanks' and went through the door into a large office. A man was standing next to an imposing, burnished oak desk. Charles Huxton was a couple inches shorter than Kyler's five-ten, had a slight paunch and had thick, dark hair, except for a hint of gray above his ears. Maybe thirty or so, he was probably considered handsome or distinguished by some. He wore an expensive vest and suit, with shoes polished to such a degree a fellow could have used them for mirrors to shave by. His hands were locked behind his back, as if poised to make an assessment of the new arrival.
Reminding himself that he had a price on his head, Kyler paused at the entrance and took a nervous look around.
'You Huxton?' he asked.
'Come in, Mr Dane,' the man offered. 'I've been expecting you.'
Kyler said: 'I was told you needed a teamster and paid top dollar.'
'For the right kind of man, yes.'
Kyler cast an anxious glance over his shoulder and quickly closed the door.
'I pulled a chair to this game, with no cards showing on the table,' he said tersely. 'Maybe you should give me an idea of what this job is all about.'
The man reached out to a box of cigars on his desk top and opened the lid.
'Smoke?' he asked.
'I never acquired the taste,' Kyler replied.
Huxton gave a nod and studied him while he cut the tip off of the cigar. He put a match to the smoke and took a long pull before speaking again.
'You've had a little trouble in your past,' he began, 'but I'm told you're capable in a fight.'
'I've been in my share of fixes and scrapes,' Kyler answered carefully.
Huxton blew a cloud of smoke. 'Ever kill anyone?' he asked.
The bluntness caused Kyler to swallow hard.
'I'm no back-shooter, if that's what you're looking for.'
'Not at all,' Huxton responded easily. 'I am merely interested in your overall qualifications.'
Kyler shrugged. 'I reckon there are reasons for hurrying the demise of a select citizen on occasion. As for my qualifications – when driving a rig, no one is going to take anything away from me.'
'We are in competition with the Yates Freight Company. They have suffered a few mishaps and think I'm responsible. They are liable to try and disrupt our own deliveries. Hence, I need a man I can count on to get our shipments through.'
The speed of his draw was a blur. Before Huxton could blink, Kyler's gun was in his fist, the muzzle pointed at the man's chest. He smiled inwardly at the sag in Huxton's jowls and the widening of his eyes.
'Like I said,' he spoke firmly, 'no one is going to take anything away from me.'
'Hellfire, man!' Huxton exclaimed. 'I never saw you reach for your gun!'
Kyler ignored the praise, spun the gun adroitly and used a practiced twist to slip the weapon back into its holster.
'What about the pay?' he asked. 'I was promised a good wage for my services.'
'Yes, yes!' Huxton did not hide his eagerness. 'Fifty dollars a week ... plus a sizable bonus when I've collected the needed contracts.'
Kyler licked his lips. It would look as if he was thrilled at the prospect of earning such high wages, but it was actually to combat a dread anticipation. So much money for merely driving a rig? What kind of nightmare had Tate gotten him into?
'The money sounds good, Mr Huxton. You assign me a wagonload of freight and I'll sure enough get it through for you.'
Huxton stuck out his hand.
'I believe you're just the man I'm looking for, Dane. Welcome to the company.'CHAPTER 2
Kyler spent the next day checking over the lay of the land. His horse needed a rest, so he rented a stable nag. He returned to find the elderly hostler mending a harness.
'I was beginning to wonder if you got lost,' the man said. 'Old Nelly ain't been out for a ride in a month of Sundays. I expect she's about done in.'
'Never gave me a hint of trouble, old-timer.'
'It ain't old-timer, sonny,' he corrected gruffly. 'Name's Nathaniel Ethan Osborn. Folks call me Nat to save time.'
Kyler grinned. 'Well, I'm not a sonny either, Nat. I'm Kyler Dane.'
Nat clucked his tongue. 'Fair enough. Glad to meet you, Dane.'
'Likewise,' Kyler replied.
'I used to shag freight for a living,' Nat explained, 'but my bones can't take the jarring of a wagon any more. I opened up this livery and earn a sizable portion of my living by tending to Huxton's animals and wagons. One of the straps was about worn through on this here harness, so I'm replacing it with a new one.'
'I'm supposed to start hauling for Huxton in the next day or two.'
'I overheard a couple of the boys talking. They said Huxton had hired a gunman who would get their wagons through, no matter what.'
'I'm no slouch with a gun, but I'm no gunman.'
'That ain't what the Wanted poster says.'
Kyler could not hide his surprise. 'Wanted poster?'
'I keep my eyes open and stay abreast of what's going on most of the time. The handbill was from Colorado, wasn't it.'
Rather than deny the charge, Kyler shrugged.
'I made a mistake.'
The old boy stared him straight in the eye.
'You don't strike me as the sort with a short temper.'
'No, I'm about as peaceful as a lamb.'
Nat chuckled. 'Guess even a lamb kicks up his heels from time to time, huh?'
Kyler joined in with a laugh. 'Yeah, on occasion.'
'I'm about done here, sonny. I'll let you treat me to a beer or two and we'll be square for you borrowing Nelly for the day.'
'I'll also fill you in on some of the happenings here in Surlock. Wouldn't hurt for you to know the players at the table before you go betting on your hole card.'
Those words struck a sensible cord. Tate hadn't given him much information. Kyler needed someone who could tell him about the situation in Surlock. He'd buy the old gent a couple drinks and see what he could learn about the freighting war.
Strap Adere sauntered over to where Phoenix was eating his supper. Without an invite, he pulled out a chair and sat down across from him.
'You meet the new man on the payroll?' he asked.
Phoenix glanced at him.
'Huxton mentioned a new hire, but I haven't crossed paths with him as yet.'
'Boss says he's a bad man with a gun.' Strap snorted his disdain. 'What for do we need another gun? You and I can handle the Yates bunch without breaking a sweat.'
Excerpted from High Gun at Surlock by Terrell L. Bowers. Copyright © 2006 Terrell L. Bowers. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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