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The Legend of Caleb York
By Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collins
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Mickey Spillane Publishing LLC
All rights reserved.
Everybody called it Boot Hill, but there was no hill about it — not even a rise on the flat, dusty ground just off the rutted road half a mile out of Trinidad, New Mexico.
The spot had been chosen because of a resilient mesquite tree that provided some color and shade, but this scrubby patch of earth otherwise had nothing to recommend it. For serving a town of less than three hundred, this was a well-populated cemetery, wooden crosses clustered with the occasional flat tombstones popping up like road markers. On this April morning, a breeze flapped hat brims and bandanas into flags and stirred dust into foot-hugging ghosts. Like diffident mourners, distant buttes lurked, turned a light rust color by a sun still on the rise, faces of their steep cliffs sorrowful with the dark shadows of erosion.
Willa Cullen, her father's only daughter — only offspring — by rights should have worn a Sunday dress, its hem weighted down with sewn-in buckshot to fight the wind. But she was in a red-plaid shirt and denim trousers and boots with stirrup-friendly heels, the kind of work clothes worn by the handful of her papa's ranch hands that could be spared to attend the small, sad graveside service for Bud Meadow.
Reverend Caldwell from Trinidad's church, Missionary Baptist, presided over this congregation of half-a-dozen cowhands, their boss, his daughter, and a dead boy in a pine box in its fresh hole. No townsfolk were present.
No surprise, really. Nobody knew Bud very well. He'd drifted in looking for work, Papa had given it to him, and come first pay, end of the month, Bud had gotten himself shot outside the Victory Saloon.
Trinidad had a reputation for looking the other way when cowhands came in on those particular Friday nights. It became routine for any business — save the Victory, the two restaurants, and the barbershop — to board up their windows till the boys got it out of their systems. In front, the affected businesses just stacked the lumber up under the windows along the boardwalks.
But Bud had mouthed off to the sheriff, and the sheriff had shot him down in the street. Funny how only the Cullen cowhands seemed to wind up that way — half a dozen were already buried here on Boot Hill. Now among them was a Meadow, planted but never to blossom.
Who were his parents? Willa wondered. Did he have brothers or sisters? Friends forged on trail drives?
They would never know. No date of birth, no full name. Just a white wooden cross, freshly painted but soon to be windblown and blistered.
Willa was a pretty thing but not delicate, near tall as her father but with her late Swede mother's hourglass figure and also the same straw-yellow hair worn up and braided back. She had been called a tomboy in her youth, but was too much of a woman for that now, though she often wore ranching-style riding apparel like today.
She meant no disrespect to the late Bud Meadow. She just knew she needed to be dressed to ride, though her father — in his black Sunday suit and string tie and felt hat — had brought the big buggy, drawn by a pair of horses, with plenty of room for her to sit beside.
Really, this was about Papa's stubbornness. In buggy or wagon, he refused to let his daughter take the reins, leaving her to ride alongside on Daisy, her calico, and surreptitiously guide the hitched-up horses, should Papa need the help he refused. Leaving the hard-packed, rutted road to take the turn into Boot Hill was an example of that.
But for a blind man, George Cullen got around well.
Her papa's blindness had come on gradual over these five years past, until now his unseeing stare had a disturbing milkiness. He would wince and narrow his eyes and widen them, as if that would somehow summon vision that was only a memory now. Still, their world was small enough — ranch, road, town — that Papa could manage. Mostly.
When the service was over, and the grave diggers gone to shoveling, Papa sent Whit Murphy, his foreman, back with the boys, and — with Willa's subtle help — steered the buggy back onto the road and headed into town. Whit had offered to come along and several others chimed in their willingness, too.
It had been Willa who discouraged them.
"If just Pa and me ride in," she said firmly, "there'll be no trouble. You boys chaperone us, we could be back out here at another service tomorrow. Maybe more than one."
Whit, lanky and weathered with a Texas-style Stetson and droopy, dark mustache, only nodded, touched his brim, and rode off, the rest following.
It didn't have to be said: a blind man and a girl could ride in and, no matter what transpired, ride back out again. Even Sheriff Harry Gauge had to respect some things.
The buggy and its calico escort took it easy down Main Street's row of facing frame buildings. At this end of Main, the white wooden church seemed to stare all the way down at its bookend, the bare-wood livery stable whose high-peaked hayloft mirrored Missionary Baptist's steeple. The street itself wore a layer of sand, carted in from the nearby Purgatory River, to hold down the dust. Wooden awnings shaded the boardwalks, a few women in gingham out shopping, encouraged by the cool breeze, always welcome in this hot dry climate.
All very civilized, Willa thought.
Hardware store, apothecary shop, barber, hotel with restaurant, mercantile store, bank, telegraph office, saloon. From Main's stem several streets shot off and modest houses hid back behind the tall false-fronted clapboard stores and the occasional brick building. Trinidad existed to serve the ranchers, large and small, who lived and worked in the surrounding area. The population here was merchants and their employees. Nicely dressed, genteel folk who depended on the rough men and frontier women who made making a living in this hard country possible for those softer than themselves.
Down toward the livery stable, with its blacksmith forge out front, was a scarred adobe building that had once been a Mexican army outpost and still sat apart from the rest of the town, across from a scattering of adobes, the homes and businesses of the town's modest Mexican contingent.
Seated under an awning that had been added onto the tile roof, watching the world go by, were two big rough-looking men in their thirties, one leaning back in his wooden chair with his boot heels catching the railing.
Willa and her father were only halfway down Main when her father asked her, "You see him?"
Papa meant Sheriff Harry Gauge.
"I see him, Papa."
"Where is he, child?"
"Where he always is, when he's not in that saloon."
"In front of his office."
"In front of his office."
"Anyone with him?"
"Just that nasty deputy. Rhomer."
"Let's go on down, then."
She frowned at the unseeing face as they kept up their leisurely pace. "Papa, you said the telegraph office. We're almost there. Let's do your errand and go about our business."
"Willa, make sure I stop right beside him."
"Papa, please ... let it be."
"You heard me, girl."
When they got to the sheriff's office, Willa cleared her throat just a little and her father brought the buggy to a stop.
Sheriff Harry Gauge took his feet off the rail and let the chair and his boots hit the plank porch, purposely loud. Gunshot loud.
Her papa flinched. "You there, Gauge?"
Gauge was a big blond man with ice-blue eyes, six-two, broad-shouldered, rugged but clean-shaven, with a cleft chin and a propensity for smiling at jokes he never shared. He wore a wide-brimmed middle-creased Stetson, a spotted cowhide vest, and a dark blue shirt with a badge, his dark duck trousers tucked into his finely tooled boots. The Colt .44 hung loosely at his side, its tie-down strap dangling.
Seated near him was Deputy Vint Rhomer, a redheaded, red-bearded man even bigger than Gauge. Eyes so dark blue they almost looked black, Rhomer was in a store-bought gray shirt with sleeve garters and badge and a buckskin vest, denims tucked in his boots. His .44 was tied down with a holster strap keeping the weapon in place.
"Right here, Cullen," the sheriff said, his voice low and mellow, and a little thick — he was chewing tobacco. "Mornin', Miss Cullen."
Willa gave the sheriff the smallest nod she could muster.
Her father's face was stony with rage, but his voice didn't show it. "Thought you might make it out to the burial, Sheriff. Seems the least you might do."
"I didn't know Mr. Meadow that well."
"Knew him well enough to kill him."
Gauge said nothing.
His tone still casual, her father nonetheless pressed: "There was no need to shoot that boy down in the street. Like a rabid dog. None at all."
"He was a rabid dog, Cullen. Wild kid, liquored up. Threatened me when I asked for his gun."
"Bud was no gunfighter. Just a kid I give a job." An edge came into her father's voice. "But that was enough for you to cut him down, wasn't it? That he worked for me."
Gauge turned his head and spat a black tobacco stream. "Nothing to do with it, Cullen. He just had a big smart mouth. Big enough to get him killed."
Now the rage in her father's voice was a storm rattling at windows. "You're no sheriff! You don't even sound like a sheriff."
Gauge spat again, put his shrug into his voice: "Well, the good folks of Trinidad elected me one, just the same."
"Because they're scared as hell!" Her father's anger unsettled the horses some. "Scared of you, scared to death of you and your badge and your whole damn bunch!"
"Cullen ... a lady's present."
Willa said, "Don't either of you hold back on my account."
Gauge grinned. "A sheriff needs deputies, Mr. Cullen. I rounded up some reliable men, hard men for a hard job. No 'bunch.'" He shrugged again, and his eyes went to Willa. "I seem to do all right by this town."
Her father snorted a laugh. "Like hell."
The sheriff shifted in his wooden chair, scraping the wooden porch. "Cullen, you're riled because that kid worked for you. I can understand that. But you didn't see the shooting, did you? You wasn't even in town. And if you was, well ... you wouldn'ta seen it, anyway. You don't see anything, do you, old man?"
The insult — however true, it was an insult — hung in the air like a sour smell.
Finally her father said, "I can see that you're trying to take over all the good grazing land around here. And so do the 'good folks of Trinidad.'"
Gauge was grinning again. "And what if they do? What would any of them do about it? Storekeepers. Bankers. Cooks and barkeeps. Children all, who need a strong hand."
Her father was trembling with anger now. "One day it will happen."
"What will, Cullen?"
Papa's smile had something terrible in it. "You'll run into a real one. A man. The kind who built this country."
"Like you, you mean?"
"Like I was. Yes, I'm an old man. A blind old man. And you are damn lucky I am, because could I see, I would find no greater pleasure than cutting you down like you did that boy."
Gauge laughed and so did his deputy.
The sheriff spat another black stream, then said, "Old man, even with eyes, you'd be out of luck. I am just too damn fast for you or any man. You haven't seen, but you've surely heard."
"I've heard," her father said. His smile remained.
"That's why I wouldn't bother tryin' to face you down. Wouldn't be worth it. Why, I'd just get you from a dark alley with a blast of buckshot."
Gauge's expression seemed to drip delight. "In the back, old man? Bushwhack me like that? Where's your pride?"
"No pride or shame in killing a snake. You just kill the damn things. Blow their evil heads off."
Gauge and his deputy laughed some more.
Then the sheriff said, "Those were the days, right, Cullen? Back before law and order came west, and men like me were around to keep the peace. But, old man — them days are over."
"Not for you they're not." Now her father's smile was gone and the cold-rage mask was back. "Not for you. For you, Sheriff? 'Those days' are just about to start."
With confidence belying his sightlessness, her father shook the reins and guided the two horses around and rode back up Main. Willa smiled back at Gauge as they left, giving him a bigger nod now.
"This is good right here, Papa," she said. "Right here is fine."
They had stopped outside the telegraph office.
Deputy Vint Rhomer had not been a lawman long, and he might have seen the irony in having shot and killed two deputies himself, in his outlaw days, had he understood the meaning of the word.
The redheaded deputy, looking down the street where Willa Cullen was hitching her calico, said, "What the hell's he talkin' about, Gauge? What's about to start?"
The sheriff spat black liquid. "No idea, Rhomer. Old coots like that never make no sense. Goin' blind turned him loco, maybe."
Rhomer shook his head. "He had somethin' on his mind. You saw his face. He must've been a tough one, in his day."
"Only this ain't his day."
Willa was helping her father down from the buggy.
"Pretty girl," Rhomer commented. "Looks like a good time to be had."
Gauge gave his deputy a smile with a sneer in it. "Watch what you say, son."
Rhomer scratched his bearded cheek. "Huh?"
The sheriff put his feet back up on the railing, rocked back. "You're talkin' about the woman I love."
Rhomer snorted. "You don't love nothin' but money, Gauge. Money and land. And if you need lovin', there's always Lola."
"Maybe. But one day soon, I am going to own that Cullen filly."
The deputy studied the sheriff. "Own her like you will the BarO ... someday?"
The Bar-O was Old Man Cullen's spread.
The sheriff gave a slow couple of nods. "Just like that, Rhomer. Like that and every piece of land worth havin' around these parts."
Horses clopped. A wagon rolled by. A fly buzzed them. Willa Cullen and her father were talking outside the telegraph office. Maybe arguing. Maybe not.
"How will you manage that, Gauge? You can't buy that kind of female. Not like you buy an hour with a saloon gal you can't."
Gauge had a distant look, like he was gazing into the future. "There's where you're wrong, Vint. I'll buy her and she'll welcome it."
"Come on, Gauge...."
"Willa Cullen was born on that ranch and she wants to stay on that ranch, and her old man can't run it forever. He'll just get older and sicker and pretty soon she'll have to look after him. Day will come, she'll be happy for me to buy the Bar-O ... and her."
The Cullen girl and her father were going into the telegraph office.
Looking that direction, Rhomer said, "Tell you, that old boy is up to something."
Gauge spat a tobacco stream. "Maybe you're right."
"I know I'm right."
"Okay, then. You're a lawman. You're suspicious. Do what a lawman does. Go see what he's up to."
Rhomer nodded, got to his feet and headed down there, leaving the man he worked for to laze in the morning sun, hat over his eyes, boots on the rail.
When the deputy stepped into the small telegraph office, Ralph Parsons, the scrawny, bespectacled operator behind the counter, was looking at a slip of paper as if it were his own death warrant. More likely, it was a form for a wire that the old man's daughter must have written out for her father.
Nervously looking up from the paper slip, the operator said, "Mr. Cullen ... this is nothing I can do, in good conscience...."
"I said send it," the old man said, his daughter at his side. "Never mind your damn conscience."
"Please, Mr. Cullen! There are regulations...."
Rhomer strode over and snatched the slip from the operator's hands. "Let's see that," he said.
The deputy had book learning enough to decipher the wire Old Man Cullen intended to send, though he read slowly and moved his lips.
To Raymond L. Parker, it read, Kansas City, Kansas. Use the ten thousand you hold for me to hire Caleb York or other top shootist to kill Harry Gauge this city. George Cullen.
Rhomer shoved his face in the old man's. "Are you plumb crazy, Cullen? Who's this Parker, anyway?"
"Old business partner of mine," Cullen said coolly. "Not that it's any of your business."
Rhomer was almost nose to nose with the coot now. "You wantin' to kill the sheriff ain't my business? I really oughta let you send this damn thing! You'd find out soon enough there ain't any top gun who can take down Harry Gauge! The fastest around have faced him and died before a gun cleared a holster."
The old man's upper lip curled back over a smile. "Not Caleb York."
Staring into the milky eyes, Rhomer said, "That's another reason why I oughta let you send this cockeyed thing."
Excerpted from The Legend of Caleb York by Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collins. Copyright © 2015 Mickey Spillane Publishing LLC. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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