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By C. COURTNEY JOYNER
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 C. Courtney Joyner
All rights reserved.
Nothing Dies Like a Man
Huckie's Saloon, with its caving roof and sides, was a whipped dog cringing in front of the Colorado Mountains, ready to snap. It was the only place John Bishop saw with any signs of life, and he angled his horse toward it.
He was navigating a tough trail winding out of the steeper foothills that led to what was passing for some kind of a town. Bishop's bay horse was cautious with her footing. The snow on the trail wasn't deep, but a layer of ice beneath the white cracked under each footfall, throwing off her steps. Bishop patted her neck to tell her she was doing well as she managed a narrow cut between some tall pines.
There was another rider following, about half a mile back, but Bishop didn't even turn to see, his mind and eyes locked straight ahead, the reins steady in his left hand to keep the bay sure. She responded.
The frozen white was blowing just enough that he had to squint to read the battered sign that declared Huckie's. A pack mule snorted out front, and a mutt scratched at the front door, until someone let it in. There was loud, drunken talk followed by laughter. Bishop figured there had to be at least five in the place, including a cackling woman.
Bishop clenched the reins. His memories from months ago, the ones that beat hell out of him every other minute, had brought him to this place, but now he had to put feelings away. He was going to do this, and had to be clear about it. No backing down.
Chester Pardee liked Huckie's. The drinks and the one woman were so watered and worn that even he seemed like a big shot in the place. He took another swallow of no-name whiskey and tried to fan his cards, but they were too ear-bent to separate. Pardee then studied each of them, pausing for a sip, making a show of what a fine hand he was holding.
Chaney, who had killed someone someplace, was getting tired of the put-on. "You ain't droppin' anything on the table, Chester."
"I like to think my bets through."
"Nobody's got that much time. Play or fold."
Pardee adjusted his fingerless gloves, and reached into his pocket for the last bit of paper he had. He'd gotten the coat from a dead man, and it was stained with his fortune, but the money was his own, and he placed an old Union twenty on the torn felt like he was presenting a king's crown.
Chaney said, "The bill's got blood on it."
"What doesn't? I know'd every one of ya and your dirty habits. I say can't none of ya match it."
Chaney nodded. "Things are temporarily lean, but I have twenty-three in silver, and this banker's watch you've always admired. You're being raised, Chester."
Pardee reached into his jacket, and took out a letter that had been roughly folded into five sections, the words smudged by whiskey rings. Too many reads had frayed the paper, but Chester Pardee waved it at Chaney like a red veronica in front of a Brahma bull.
Pardee said, "You know what this is?"
Chaney didn't change his expression. "You jaw about it enough."
"Right, it's a goddamn treasure map. I'll throw ten percent—no, one percent—into the pot. One percent. One."
Chaney said, "You might as well say you wipe yourself with it."
"You won't take that much of a chance, Chaney? You ain't a gambler at all."
Chaney looked up from his cards.
The Colorado snow eased as Bishop rode to the hitch rail. He threw his weight to one side, angling his right arm from its special sling on the saddle, almost turning in the stirrup, before dropping to the ground. Here, the snow was slush under his boots, as he listened again to the voices escaping from Huckie's. Bishop rolled his shoulders and said something like a prayer before walking the last steps to the batwings that were banging against the front door.
The glass in the front door had a little split, and for some reason, Bishop almost knocked. Instead, he opened it with his left hand and let the door swing free inside, the glass breaking in half to announce him.
Pardee turned in his chair to see Bishop standing in the doorway. One of the others at the table belched, "You're gonna have to pay for that."
Bishop kept his head down with his arms straight at his side, his black duster a size and some too big, hanging scarecrow loose, but it gave him the freedom of movement he needed. The first time he saw himself, he thought he looked like a specter from Poe. Bishop cleared his throat, but didn't speak.
Huckie's was all whispers and mutterings; guesses about Bishop passed from the drinkers who sat at the old silver exchange counter that now served as the bar, to the laughing whore on the straw bed tucked away in a corner, with the pull curtain above it. Bishop had their attention, until he raised his eyes. The whispering stopped, and then started again, punctuated with loud snickering.
Bishop's face was softly round, and not protected at all by his blond beard-the kind of face that made men like these laugh among themselves before trying something.
Pardee paid no mind. He slipped the letter back into his jacket, and said to Chaney, "You can't kill me for tryin'."
Chaney said, "Find somebody to stake you, or fold."
Bishop hadn't moved; he tried again. "Chester Pardee."
Pardee said, "It's freezin' in here."
"That's all you have to say?"
"We've got a game, jackass."
Bishop took a single step closer to the table. "Then you don't know me?"
Chaney said, "You lost, Chester."
Pardee said, "Hold up! You say you know me? Stake me to this pot. I got the cards, amigo."
"You really don't remember?"
Chaney said to Pardee, "I called, that's it."
Chaney laid out two pairs of faces, while Pardee tossed a weak five-high straight on the table. Chaney gave Pardee a smirk with some pity.
Pardee faced Bishop with, "Whatever the hell you're on about, it didn't mean nothin'! You just cost me!"
"Slaughtering a man's family doesn't mean anything?"
The first blast ripped through Pardee's shoulder and sent him spinning out of his chair, spurs catching the edge of the table, sending the whiskey, cash, and five-high flying. Pardee twisted on the bowed floor, screaming out for Jesus, but Jesus didn't make a move. Nobody did.
The whore burst into tears because she'd never seen a shooting up close before; everyone else rubbernecked for a look, not exactly sure what had just happened.
Bishop stood over Pardee, gun smoke drifting from the end of his sleeve where his right hand should have been, but wasn't. Instead, the two barrels of a Greener shotgun poked from the ragged cuff, which had been singed by the blast. Burning threads danced from the cuff to the floor.
The double barrels were in place of Bishop's right arm, attached somehow at the elbow, and held waist-high steady. He shifted his weight from one leg to the other, keeping the weapon dead-centered on Pardee's chest.
Pardee was still crying out for Jesus as he struggled to stand, red spreading across his jacket. He tried drawing his Colt with fingers that wouldn't work. "You ain't given me a sloppy Chinaman's chance!"
"What kind of chance did you give my wife and son?"
"I've still got the second barrel."
"Can't you just let me out, Bishop?"
"So you know me now."
"What happened wasn't my doin', I swear. That's not why I was there."
"I can barely see where my wife threw the grease from that hot skillet."
"Please, let me ride out and you'll never hear my name again."
Pardee said, "If I live another twenty years, it won't matter. I'm already dead."
Bishop had to shift his weight again, but, with effort, he kept his voice calm and the shotgun aimed at Pardee's chest, "You wanted to know about gold I didn't have. Well, now I want to know something. I'm counting."
"Beaudine's crazy, and I fell in with his gang. That's all it was: us tryin' to eat. Nothin' personal."
"I'm only going to five."
Pardee stammered through tears, giving up a crossroads where Bishop could look for Beaudine, and kill him, if that's what he intended. Pardee even gave his permission.
Bishop said, "You know what retribution is?"
"It means I'm done."
"If you can get off the floor, I'll let you try."
Pardee didn't move. Bishop said, "I'm not a murderer."
"You're a blessed man, Doc. Better than I'll ever be."
Pardee dropped his words as he grabbed Bishop's left hand, and yanked him forward, slashing him with a rifleman's knife he had strapped to his boot. The blade sliced deep, from earlobe to the corner of Bishop's mouth.
Pardee whooped, "How you like that—?!"
Bishop heaved backwards and brought up his right arm in a single motion. Buckshot 'n' fire erupted from the sleeve a second time, rag-dolling Pardee into a stack of empty beer kegs. Wood and bone shattered together, then settled into silence. Pardee's eyes stayed wide and his grip on his pistol never relaxed.
Everybody froze for a moment, and then the talk started, along with nervous laughter. One old boy said something about a "nice killin'" and spit a stream of tobacco juice that spattered a brown halo around Pardee's head.
Bishop waited for someone to try something, but no one bothered. The mutt in the corner wagged his tail and barked his approval. Chaney, the card player, scooped the poker pot into his hat as Bishop took careful steps to the shattered door.
Chaney said, "You blew both barrels."
Bishop jerked his arm, and the shotgun breeched inside the duster, the sleeve tenting the open barrel. Bishop reached inside the sleeve, coming out with two spent shells and dropped them on the floor. He grabbed two fresh from his jacket, and reloaded, before bringing his arm upward in a motion that snapped the barrel shut.
This took moments, with everyone watching, their eyes wide and "goddamns" whispered. Bishop aimed the rig directly at Chaney's gut. Chaney showed his palms. "Hey, nobody gave a shit about Chester, except you."
"You going to bury him?"
Chaney shrugged while winding his watch.
"The railroad's probably put up a price."
Chaney said, "Knowing Chester, they're offering the lowest bounty in history."
Outside, the midnight wind stung Bishop as he checked the cinch on his bay, but his one hand was shaking, and his chest pounded. A lot had led up to this, and in a few moments it was over. Well, Pardee was over, but there were still the others. At least now Bishop knew he could go through with it; he had to keep that in his mind, the knowing, no doubts at all. He had to.
His face was sticky with the wash of blood from his sliced cheek, and as Bishop calmed, he started to feel the pain. The batwings creaked, and a few drinkers poked their heads over the doors. The whore moved to Bishop, holding out a lace handkerchief. "It's clean."
Bishop wrapped the handkerchief around his face to soak the bleeding. He felt the girl behind him tying it off and caught her heavy perfume. Bishop thanked her and she nodded before wiping her wet eyes on her sleeve.
The others hung back on Huckie's porch, watching as Bishop hefted himself onto his saddle, again throwing himself wide and keeping the shotgun clear of any tangle. He played it slow for them, settling against the leather, and sliding his double-barreled right arm into the canvas sling.
The bay was ready to run, but Bishop kept the reins tight around his only knuckles, holding her back.
Old Spitter hollered, "Hey! You busted some good bottles killin' that piece of sheep dip! Plus the door, and a couple of chairs!"
Bishop took fifty from his vest and tossed it. "You're going to tell folks about this, right, friend?"
Spitter gum-grinned. "I'll be talkin' about tonight for the next five years, five months, or five days. Dependin' on how much time I got left."
"God only knows, and I'm obliged to you both."
Bishop brought his horse around slow for that last look, and then heeled her. The bay took off toward the blue-black silhouettes of the rising hills, and the high Colorados beyond.
Spitter whistled with gums and two fingers, but Dr. John Bishop didn't hear it. His horse was running strong into the winter night, knowing where to go, even if his mind was taking him someplace else beyond the hurt—maybe back to his wedding day, or the birth of his son.
Behind him, a rider was charging hard to catch up, a Cheyenne war club in their hand.
White Fox kept her body low and tight against the painted stallion. They moved as one, racing down the trail, the snow kicking up around them like bursts of brake steam. She grabbed the horse's mane, fingers tangled in wiry brown, and gently pulled. The painted slowed as the path through the trees widened into an easier slope that led to the "town" just below. It was a mule squat for drifters who still had hopes for the played-out silver strike at Cherry Creek—stop for a drink or an ash hauling, and ride on.
But this was where Bishop had to go, so White Fox had to follow.
She pulled up to watch Bishop's silhouette pause outside Huckie's, say something with a roll of his shoulders, and then go in. White Fox dropped from the painted, and walked him around the burned skeleton of an old barn to a water trough thick with ice. She broke the icy surface with a kick and tossed away the pieces.
The painted inspected the trough with his nose, then drank.
While he watered, she scraped packed snow from his hooves with a six-inch blade. She had the feeling everything in this place was dying or dead. Two loud voices from Huckie's stopped her.
White Fox stepped into the moonlight, craning her neck toward Huckie's to hear. A voice she didn't know was yelling about Jesus. Two shotgun blasts followed; that low rumble mixed with those louder cracks that ring in the air and ears.
The painted lurched as the blasts smashed against the hills. White Fox said, "Nâhtötse," close to the stallion's ear, calming him, before swinging herself on his back, and circling around the far side of the barn. She saw Bishop on his bay, talking to the Spitter on the porch. White Fox dug in, and the painted broke into a run, while Bishop rode off without looking back.
The Spitter whistled loud after Bishop, before looking up to see White Fox charging toward him. It was either an image from some kind of holy book or his best damn whiskey dream ever: the beautiful Cheyenne woman, onyx hair spreading behind her, riding out of the night just to take the old man away. White Fox pulled a war club she'd tethered to her belt and held it high.
Spitter closed his eyes and smiled, thinking, This is a hell of a way to go, and why not?
White Fox rode close, swinging the club into the skull of the drunk standing next to the Spitter, creasing his head. The drunk fell forward, the revolver in his hand hot-blasting the muddy snow instead of John Bishop's back, where he had been aiming.
Spitter grabbed the pistol for a trophy, and White Fox threw him a stony nod while the painted galloped toward Bishop. Bishop turned at the sound of the shot, just as White Fox rode up next to him, still holding the war club. They rode side by side for a moment, the legs of the painted and the bay falling into sync.
White Fox said, "Hetómem."
Bishop spoke through the bloody handkerchief, "He remembered me."
White Fox pointed to the nearest mountains with the club, and broke ahead. Bishop heeled the bay.
The cave was a huge, yawning smile beneath a jagged slope of blue rock, sheeted by snow and protected by daggers of ice formed by the water flowing from up-mountain. Bishop followed the barely-there trail for more than a mile, guided by a small fire White Fox had left burning inside the cave's mouth, its drifting heat melting hanging icicles. Bishop felt comforted by the distant, flickering orange, even as a raw burning raced across his face and down his right half-arm.
The painted was tied to a Rocky Mountain birch, eating fresh snow, when Bishop reached the cave. White Fox stood just inside, waiting to see if he could get down from the bay by himself. He did, a scream jamming the back of his throat. Fresh blood specked Bishop's sleeve and the shotgun barrels. She took a step toward him that he stopped with a raised hand. He nodded that he could beat it, allowing himself a moment to let the throbbing from his arm and face ease with deep, cold breathing. It didn't.
Excerpted from SHOTGUN by C. COURTNEY JOYNER. Copyright © 2013 C. Courtney Joyner. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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