Bloody Hills

Bloody Hills

by Charles G. West

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451213303
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/28/2004
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 4.32(w) x 6.74(h) x 0.83(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

William Raymond Blevins knew from a young age that he wasn’t likely to be a big man when he was full grown. As soon as he was old enough to consider such thoughts, he took a look at his daddy—short and skinny as a hay rake—and knew he was destined to be the same. But Billy Ray, as the townsfolk of Dry Fork called him, was born with a mean streak and a total distain for weakness in any form. Being an undersized child, and one who did not cotton to backing down to anyone, he always carried some form of equalizer in case he was challenged. He attended six years of classes in the one-room school at the south end of town before being permanently expelled for using a pocketknife to carve up one of his classmates. Not being particularly fond of school in the first place, Billy Ray didn’t mind being kicked out. In his opinion, the three saloons in the little town offered a much more practical education for a young man of his ambitions.

At the age of thirteen, Billy Ray counted himself fortunate to gain employment in the Lucky Spur Saloon when his predecessor accidentally stepped between two angry card players and suffered an eight-inch double-edged blade to his abdomen. Making fifty cents a day, with a cot to sleep on in the storeroom out back, Billy Ray was well on his way toward what he reasoned to be the good life. Due to his slight physique, however, he fully realized that he would never gain respect in that rough saloon life with his fists—and no young man ever had a stronger need for respect. So he saved every cent he could until he had enough to purchase one of Samuel Colt’s popular Peacemakers.

From that moment when he first held the shiny new pistol, he knew that he must dedicate himself to the mastery of the weapon. The cool, heavy feel of the metal in his hand gave him an immediate sense of lethal power, a feeling that commanded respect. He continued saving his money, spending most of it on cartridges for daily target practice. Long hours were spent far out on the prairie, where he practiced drawing his pistol in a split second. He filed the front sight down to further facilitate his speed in pulling his weapon from the holster.

Billy Ray’s dogged practice paid off—so much so that before he reached his seventeenth birthday, he was regarded as the fastest gun in the territory. And he had what he most wanted—respect—although it came solely from the saloon riffraff who inhabited his world. Along with his notoriety for being a fast gun, he developed a nasty arrogance that seemed to cause him to constantly seek fights. With the solid weight of his six-gun riding on his thigh, he feared no man. While he thoroughly enjoyed the fact that no one was willing to provoke him to the point of a showdown, there was still one thing to prove. He had never killed a man. That one fact began to plague him to the point where the few friends he could claim at the Lucky Spur became quiet in his presence and avoided him whenever possible. Soon he found himself a belligerent loner, always spoiling for a fight, looking for an excuse to carve that first notch on the handle of his Colt .45. The only person who genuinely solicited his friendship was Sonny Demry, a simpleminded teenage boy who raked out the stalls at the livery stable. Billy Ray tolerated him because he enjoyed the unconcealed hero worship. Sonny would always look in the Lucky Spur whenever he passed that way to see if his hero was seated at the back corner table, isolated in his belligerent bearing, always alert to the opportunity to demonstrate his mastery of his six-gun. The time would not be long in coming.

It was a rainy night in Dry Fork with the kind of cold rain that chills a man to the bone—the kind of rain that makes a man thirsty for a drink of the burning rotgut whiskey served for a quarter a shot at the Lucky Spur. Consequently, Dry Fork’s most notorious saloon was filled with thirsty customers seeking warmth and companionship on a raw night in early spring. At his usual spot at the back table, Billy Ray propped his chair against the wall, a bored scowl upon his face as he nursed a drink of Willett Burns’s cheapest. His practiced smirk attracted the notice of a young stranger at the bar, a cowhand from a nearby ranch.

“Who’s the cocky-lookin’ dude eyeballin’ everybody at the back table?” the cowhand asked.

“You must be new in town,” Barney Tatum replied. “That there’s Billy Ray. He’s the fastest with a handgun that you’ll ever see.”

“Is that so?” the young man responded, the liquor in him stimulating his competitive impulses. “I’m pretty fast gettin’ my pistol outta the holster myself.”

This sparked Barney’s interest. “Think you’re faster than Billy Ray? I’ve never seen you draw, young feller, but I’d bet against it. Billy Ray’s like lightning.”

The cowhand was intrigued by the challenge. He was not without reason to feel confident. No one on the spread he rode for could match him when it came to clearing his pistol and popping the head off a rattlesnake. “Maybe he just ain’t run into no real competition yet.”

Hearing the young fellow’s comment, Barney was even more interested in what might shape up to be a right entertaining contest. He flagged Willett Burns down at the end of the bar. When Willett came down to see what he wanted, Barney said, “Young feller here says he can draw faster than Billy Ray.”

“Is that so?” Willett asked, directing his question to the cowhand.

The young man shrugged. “I might,” he replied, unconsciously reaching down to ease his pistol a little to make sure it was riding light in the holster.

“Well, there’s one sure way to find out,” Willett said, grinning at Barney. “We can set up a little contest right now. Some of the boys might wanna lay a few bets on it.” He looked back at the cowhand. “Whaddaya say, young feller?”

Tossing the rest of his drink down to bolster his confidence, he said, “Wouldn’t hurt just to see who’s the fastest, I reckon.”

“Well, then,” Willett crowed, and raised his voice so he could be heard above the noisy din of the saloon. “Boys, we got us a young man here who says he might be faster with a six-gun than Billy Ray over there.” His announcement brought an immediate response. The saloon grew quiet for a few moments while all eyes turned to the smirking young man at the back table. “What about it, Billy Ray?” Willett asked.

There was never a moment of hesitation in Billy Ray’s mind. “I reckon,” he said, and lowered his chair to the floor. With a studied swagger, he walked to the front of the bar to stand before the cowhand, looking him up and down in his familiar sneering fashion.

The noise returned immediately with calls for bets echoing back and forth across the packed saloon. “I’ll lay a little money on Billy Ray,” one voice could be heard. “Put me down for five dollars,” another voice said. “How fast is that young feller?” someone wanted to know. Willett took charge of the betting, and when all the money was down, he said, “Come on, everybody back up and give these boys some room.” There followed some pushing and shoving as his patrons attempted to clear a small area in the middle of the floor.

Billy Ray stood, still sizing up his challenger, one foot slightly ahead of the other, as if he was about to step forward, his head tilted slightly down, peering at the cowhand through his eyebrows. He said not another word until Willett stated the rules, and prepared to drop his hat as a signal to draw. Then Billy Ray spoke. “I ain’t got enough room.”

“Let’s take it out in the street so these boys’ll have plenty of room,” Willett said.

Following the two contestants, the crowd spilled out into the muddy street, elbowing each other for position on the board walkway, ignoring the rain that continued to fall. Still in charge of the formalities, Willett directed the young men to stand approximately twenty yards apart. Facing each other, with the rain beating unmercifully in their faces, they did as he instructed. When both men were in position and ready, Willett raised his hat high above his head, holding it there while he gave one last instruction. “The boys here will be the judge and jury on which one of you gets his gun out first. You both ready?” Both men nodded, then waited, poised, for Willett to drop his hat.

The brim of Willett’s hat had barely left his fingertips before Billy Ray’s Colt was in his hand and leveled at his adversary. The young cowhand was fast, but he was no match for Billy Ray, who had spent countless days off in the prairie practicing the smooth motion that was almost quicker than the eye could follow. With just a hint of a grim smile upon his face, he seemed to purposely wait a second for his challenger’s pistol to clear the holster. In the next instant, the crowd of spectators was shocked into stony silence as Billy Ray pulled the trigger. The young cowhand dropped his pistol, and, clutching his gut, sank to his knees in the muddy street, his face contorted into a mask of stunned disbelief. Not one of the spectators moved for what seemed a long moment, as shocked as the wounded man. Like the young cowhand, they had all assumed they were betting on a simple contest of speed. No one had counted on Billy Ray’s intent.

When the cowhand crumpled facedown in the mud, the spectators finally broke the pall that had descended upon them, and rushed to give what aid and comfort they could. It was too late. The young man was dying, gut-shot, in the filthy quagmire of wagon ruts and horse droppings. Seemingly oblivious to the disturbed state that now enveloped the crowd, Billy Ray stood, transfixed, apart from the chaos he had caused.

“I reckon somebody better go wake up Sam Ingram,” Willett said with a helpless sigh.

After the incident, there was a lot of talk in private conversations about the blatant murder of the innocent young man. Sheriff Ingram was hell-bent on hanging Billy Ray for the dastardly deed, but Billy Ray maintained that he had been under no assumption that it was supposed to be a harmless contest. The man had pulled a gun on him, he insisted, and he had feared for his life, and acted in self-defense. A jury could not deny the fact that the cowhand had pulled a gun, and there was no way of knowing whether or not he intended to use it. Much to Sam Ingram’s disgust, Billy Ray was allowed to go free.

• * *

It was a fine spring morning in Dry Fork. Remnants of an isolated shower from the night before were already drying up, leaving only a few puddles here and there in the dirt street. Billy Ray leaned back in a chair in front of the Lucky Spur, his feet propped on the rail. He was soaking in the warm sun, seeking to dry out after a night of heavy drinking. Because of the nagging headache accompanying his hangover, he was in a bad mood. His eyes almost closed due to the bright sun, he squinted at the familiar rotund figure of Sheriff Sam Ingram coming his way. Fat old fart, Billy Ray thought, knowing the sheriff would have something to say to him. He always did after the showdown with the cowhand several weeks before, and Billy Ray wasn’t in the mood to hear one of Sam Ingram’s mealymouthed lectures. The thought caused him to consider the possibility of moving on. On this early May morning in the year 1875, two months shy of his twenty-first birthday, he figured that he had outgrown Dry Fork. There was no one left in the little settlement to challenge him. His confidence was such that he was certain no man was faster with a gun—anywhere in the territory. And he was ready to expand his reputation. Maybe, he was thinking, he ought to ride up in Dakota territory. If there was as much gold in the Black Hills as folks talked about, he might as well take his share—and he wasn’t thinking about using a pick and shovel.

“Mornin’, Billy Ray,” Sheriff Ingram said with a noticeable lack of cordiality, a tone Billy Ray was used to. The sheriff stopped and waited for Billy Ray to remove his feet from the railing so he could pass. Billy Ray made no effort to accommodate him. Making no attempt to disguise his irritation, Ingram scowled and said, “I hear tell you raised a little fuss in the saloon last night.”

“Is that a fact?” Billy Ray answered, a contemptuous smile spread slowly across his face. “Was there an official complaint from somebody?” He knew the answer without asking. Nobody had the guts to file a complaint.

Ingram frowned, his disgust with the young hooligan blatantly apparent. “No,” he replied after a pause, “but you’re gonna have to change your attitude. You’re startin’ to worry some of the good citizens of Dry Fork.”

“Is that so? Well, maybe I’ll just go have a little talk with some of your good citizens—see what the problem is.” Billy couldn’t resist taunting the sheriff. It had the proper effect on Sam Ingram.

The sheriff responded immediately. “You do, and I’ll lock you up for disturbing the peace.”

Billy Ray laughed. “Now, Sheriff, you know I wouldn’t do nothin’ to rile the good folks of Dry Fork.”

Exasperated, Ingram shook his head in disgust. “That attitude of yours is gonna land you in my jail one of these days.” He walked around behind him and went on about his business, unwilling to waste any more time on the belligerent young troublemaker.

“If that day ever comes,” Billy Ray called out after him, “you’d best bring that hayseed deputy of yours, ’cause it’s gonna be a full day’s work for both of you.”

Sam didn’t even bother to look around. “One of these days,” he muttered to himself, and continued on toward his office, convinced that the day was not far off when Billy Ray would manage to get himself in real trouble.

Pleased with himself for getting Sam Ingram’s goat, Billy Ray shifted his chair so as to have a view of the other end of the street. The warm sunshine almost made him doze, and after a few minutes, he opened his eyes wide in an effort to rouse himself from his sleepy state. It was then that he caught sight of something that always captured his attention. Revealing just a glimpse of stocking, Rachael Andrews was in the process of climbing out of her buggy when her gingham skirt snagged on the corner of the seat. The young wife of the new schoolmaster had caught Billy Ray’s eye on the first day of their arrival, some three months before. She was a shy girl who favored everyone she met with a timid smile, averting her eyes as she passed. On several occasions, Billy Ray had attempted to make eye contact with her, but she had always avoided it.

He lowered his chair back to the board walkway and stood up to watch her progress. After freeing her hem, she turned in the direction of the general store, angling across the dirt street, dodging the few puddles. Billy Ray openly appraised the young woman, admiring the slender waist and the dainty way she carried herself. Like she had something precious to protect, he thought. She’s too damn fine for that sissy schoolteacher she’s married to. He decided that it was time to introduce her to a real man.

Her eyes focused upon the ground before her feet, as was her habit when crossing before one of the three saloons in town, Rachael Andrews was unaware of the man until she almost bumped into him. Looking up then, she was startled to confront the sneering countenance of the town’s bad boy. Excusing herself immediately, she attempted to go around him.

“Whoa there, honey, I came out here to help you across the street,” Billy said, grabbing her by the arm. “I wouldn’t want you to get your pretty little feet dirty in one of these mud puddles.” She tried to pull away, but he held her fast.

Frightened, she nevertheless attempted to remain calm. “I thank you for your concern, sir, but I can manage on my own.”

His sneering grin still in place, he pulled her up close to him. “Ah, now, no call for you to be so snotty. I just wanna get to know you a little better. I think you and me could have a lotta fun when you get to know me.”

Appalled, she jerked her arm free of his grasp. “Sir, I am a married woman.”

“Hell, I ain’t gonna hold that against you.” Before she could step away, he suddenly swept her up in his arms. “I’ll carry you across all these mud puddles.”

Terrified, Rachael screamed and struggled to free herself, all to no avail, and to Billy Ray’s great amusement. Laughing at her futile efforts, he pressed her even closer, feeling her softness against him, as he carried her to the opposite side of the street. Once across, he set her feet down on the board walkway, but held her tightly by her arms. “Now I think I ought to be rewarded for being such a gentleman,” he said and attempted to kiss her. She pulled her head away, but he persisted until, finally, in frustration, he slapped her hard across the face. Stunned, she froze for a moment. He was quick to seize the opportunity, kissing her hard on the mouth while he held her head still with one hand, the other groping her body. When she finally was able to pull away from him, she staggered back a few steps, humiliated and frightened, tears now streaming down her cheeks. Unable to speak, she spat in his face. He reached for her again, but she stepped quickly back, turned about and ran toward her buggy, sobbing openly. He stood there, at first angered by the spittle hanging from his chin, but then laughing at her shame. He called out after her, “That was just a taste of what I’ve got for you. Just like a taste of whiskey—you don’t never know you’re a drunk till you’ve had your first taste of whiskey.”

• * *

Sheriff Sam Ingram looked up when the door opened, and Pete Svensen burst into his office. “Sam, you and Lon better git down to the Lucky Spur right now!”

Never one to get excited, Sam remained seated. “Lon’s gone huntin’. Why don’t you calm down a minute and tell me what’s got you so lathered up?”

“Billy Ray!” Pete blurted. “Will Andrews called him out, said Billy Ray made a play for his wife.”

“Damn,” Ingram uttered under his breath. He knew it was bound to happen. It was just a matter of when. Billy Ray had been itching for somebody to challenge him for too long. The sheriff wasted no more time. Getting to his feet, he took a rifle from the gun rack behind his desk and checked to make sure it was loaded. “Where are they?” he asked as he rounded the desk and headed for the door.

“In front of the Lucky Spur,” Pete replied, the urgency in his tone told Ingram he’d better hurry. “Will came down to the saloon lookin’ for Billy Ray. He didn’t have no gun. Billy Ray drew down on him, and told him he’d better go git one. Will borrowed Tom Leary’s pistol, and the two of ’em went out in the street.”

“Damn!” Ingram swore. “Why didn’t you come get me sooner?” He bolted out the door with Pete right on his heels. “By God, I’ve got him this time. He ain’t gittin’ away with it again.” A face-off between Billy Ray and Will Andrews amounted to no more than simple murder. Will had no chance against Billy Ray. The young schoolmaster didn’t even own a gun. Ingram broke into a trot in an attempt to reach the two before Will sacrificed his life for the sake of his pride.

It had been a long time since Sam Ingram tried to run anywhere. He was already puffing before he had trotted halfway down the street toward the crowd gathered to watch the confrontation. He could see the two combatants facing each other in the middle of the wagon track that served as Dry Fork’s main street—Will Andrews with a borrowed gun stuck in his waistband; Billy Ray, his back toward the sheriff, standing confident, his hand hovering over a low-slung holster.

“Hold on!” Ingram shouted, but it was too late. Will made a move toward his pistol. In a fraction of a second, Billy drew his pistol and pumped two shots into Will’s belly. While the spectators gasped, Will doubled over, still trying to pull Tom Leary’s pistol, which was caught in his waistband. Another bullet in the chest finally dropped him lifeless to the ground.

Feet widespread, pistol still pointing at the fallen man, Billy Ray stood as if in a trance. The blood was pumping wildly through his veins, triggered by an overpowering feeling of euphoria at the sight of his second kill. The pounding of his heartbeat in his ears almost drowned out all other sounds that surrounded him. Totally captured by his moment of conquest, he did not hear Sheriff Ingram’s command to drop his weapon. When Billy Ray failed to respond, Sam fired a shot in the air as a warning. Snapped back to his senses by the sound of the rifle, Billy Ray whirled around and emptied his pistol of the remaining three cartridges. It happened so fast that he wasn’t even aware of what was happening until he saw Sam Ingram lying mortally wounded in the street. The sudden barrage scattered the crowd of spectators into nearby doors and alleys. Those who froze long enough to see the shooting later reported that the only apparent reaction from Billy Ray was a slight curling of his upper lip as he sneered at the sheriff’s body.

After a few minutes had passed, Billy Ray calmly reloaded his weapon, looked once again at Will Andrews’s body, then back at Sam Ingram’s. Then he walked toward the Lucky Spur with a slight swagger to his step. Once he had disappeared inside the swinging doors, the spectators emerged from their holes and gathered around the bodies. It was too late to help either victim. “Somebody better go tell Sam’s wife and Rachael Andrews,” Pete Svensen said.

“Somebody better go find Lon,” somebody else said.

• * *

In the course of a few minutes time, Billy Ray had dealt a crippling blow to the little town of Dry Fork. He had eliminated over half of the law enforcement capability of the settlement—most folks didn’t figure Lon Fortson to count for much more than Sam’s helper—as well as killing the town’s one school-teacher. No one knew where Deputy Lon Fortson was, only that he had gone hunting and wasn’t expected back for several days. The question before the leading citizens of Dry Fork was what to do about the brazen killer holding court at the Lucky Spur.

“We can’t tolerate his kind in this town any longer,” John Castleberry stated. “We’re gonna have to do something about Billy Ray, and I mean right now.” The mayor of Dry Fork had called the special meeting of the city council at his home, one mile south of town, in order to keep the meeting secret.

“Ain’t much we can do till Lon gets back,” Wilson Greenwell commented.

“Who knows how long before that fool gets back?” Castleberry shot back. “Meanwhile Billy Ray hangs on the bar at the Lucky Spur bragging about what he did.” He paused to look around him at the other five men seated at his kitchen table. “Word gets out that a young hothead can brazenly gun down our sheriff and one of the towns leading citizens, and nothing is done about it—why, it’ll be an open invitation for every outlaw in the territory.”

“What are you proposing we should do about it?” The question came from Walt Collins, a man of few words, large stature and burly appearance who owned the stables on the north end of town.

Castleberry turned to meet Walt’s steady gaze. The mayor already knew that Collins would support any call for action. “I don’t ordinarily condone any type of vigilante activity,” the mayor replied. “You all know that. But sometimes it might be necessary in order to protect the progress we’ve already made in Dry Fork.” He permitted his gaze to sweep the other faces around the table. “Now I know we all stand for law and order. But let’s be realistic about the situation we’ve got here. Lon Fortson means well, and you can’t help but like the man, but the only reason he was hired as a deputy was so Sam could have somebody to play checkers with. And that’s about it. Besides, there’s no use in Lon going up against Billy Ray and getting himself killed.” He paused again while the members of the council exchanged knowing glances, aware of what the mayor was proposing. “Gentlemen, it’s time we formed an official posse to protect our homes and businesses. We have to answer to Rachael Andrews and Ellie Ingram.”

There followed an extended silence while the five men thought about the action proposed. The first to speak was Walt Collins. “John’s right,” he said, nodding his head as he searched the faces of his fellow council members. “We need to lynch that young hellion to let everybody know we don’t stand for murderers in this town.”

The others nodded soberly in agreement, all but Wilson Greenwell. “I ain’t so sure we can do something like that. Maybe we ought to send Lon over to Cheyenne to fetch the marshal.”

“Hard to tell how long that would take,” Collins said. “Hell, Wilson, we need to take care of this right now.” He shrugged. “If you ain’t got the stomach for it—”

“Never you mind about that,” Wilson cut him off. “I can handle a rifle as well as the next man, and I ain’t afraid to use one. I’m just sayin’ we don’t want to call down any trouble on ourselves for steppin’ outside the law.”

“We won’t be steppin’ outside the law,” Castleberry said. “I’ll appoint Walt Collins temporary sheriff, and he can officially deputize all of us.”

Plans were made and discussion went on until Doris Castleberry entered the kitchen to inquire if she should fix supper for the six of them. That prompted all but her husband to graciously decline her invitation and take their leave. “Tomorrow morning, seven o’clock,” Castleberry reminded them as they filed out the door. “We’ll meet at the stable.” There had been some reluctance on the part of a couple of the councilmen, primarily Cyrus Brumby, who owned the general store. But in the end there was unanimous agreement that the mad dog in their midst had to be exterminated for the sake of the community.

• * *

When he returned to town from the meeting at the mayor’s house, Walt Collins was surprised to see Sonny Demry still at work in the stables. “How come you’re still here?” Walt asked, as he dismounted and led his horse in the barn.

“I didn’t git finished cleanin’ out them stalls in the back like you told me to,” Sonny replied, his eyes downcast as if he’d been caught doing something wrong. “I reckon I got behind in my work when I went up to watch the shootin’ at the Lucky Spur.”

“I reckon everybody did,” Walt said. He took a moment to consider the slow-witted boy, and he thought about the admiration Sonny had for Billy Ray’s ability with a six-gun. “I know you cotton to Billy Ray, but what he did today was dead wrong, and he sure ain’t nobody to be admired. You know that, don’t you?” Sonny didn’t respond, just continued to hold his head down. “He killed two innocent people today,” Walt went on, “and he’s gonna be held to account for what he did.”

Sonny raised his eyes briefly. “But Billy Ray said Mr. Andrews was the one called him out, and Sheriff Ingram was fixin’ to shoot him in the back.”

Walt shook his head, exasperated. “You’ve been hangin’ around that damn saloon again, ain’t you? Hell, Sonny, it amounted to outright murder. You can’t pay no attention to Billy Ray’s bragging. It was murder, and it ain’t gonna be tolerated in this town. You’ll see how fancy your big-talking gunman is when he’s swinging from a free limb tomorrow.” Realizing then that his anger had allowed him to go too far, Walt quickly added, “Now go on home now. You can finish that up in the morning.”

• * *

Sonny usually did as he was told, but what Walt had said troubled him. He had said hanging from a tree limb tomorrow, and Walt always said what he meant. Billy Ray was Sonny’s idol, and Sonny wondered if he should go by the Lucky Spur and tell Billy Ray what Walt had said. Billy Ray might be in trouble, and a friend would warn another friend. Sonny felt strongly about that, for he considered himself Billy Ray’s friend.

Billy Ray was seated as usual at the back table of the Lucky Spur when Sonny peered over the swinging doors, searching for his hero. When Sonny pushed through the doors, Billy Ray looked up from the empty glass he was fiddling with on the table before him. He was still a little perturbed that there had not been more of a fuss in honor of his gunfight that afternoon. To the contrary, it perplexed him that everyone seemed to be giving him more space than usual. He had even had to buy his own drinks. The reception to his deadly ability had hardly been what he would have expected, and for once, he was glad to see Sonny Demry come in. Sonny was a half-wit, but Billy Ray reveled in the poor boy’s idolatry.

“What you doin’ in here so late, turnip head?” Billy Ray tilted his chair back against the wall and greeted the young boy.

“Howdy, Billy Ray,” Sonny drawled, his face beaming with delight at being acknowledged by his hero. “I come by to tell you somethin’.”

When Sonny related, as close as he could remember, Walt Collins’s veiled threat about a lynching, Billy Ray’s first reaction was disdainful contempt. “They’ll play hell tryin’ to put a rope around my neck,” he blustered loudly for the benefit of those seated at nearby tables. “I reckon everybody saw what happens to anybody tryin’ to go up against me.” His response pleased Sonny, and the half-wit left the saloon with the firm conviction that Billy Ray could take on the entire town if necessary.

One who overheard the conversation between Billy Ray and the simpleminded stable boy was Willett Burns, owner of the Lucky Spur. He took the shot glasses he had just rinsed in the water bucket behind the bar, placed them on the shelf and paused for a few moments, considering what he was about to say. His mind made up, he came from behind the bar, walked over and sat down at the table with Billy Ray. Willett had put up with Billy ever since he had come looking for a job as a thirteen-year-old. Some folks wondered why Willett had continued to let Billy Ray establish himself at the Lucky Spur after evolving into such an obnoxious loudmouth whose only apparent accomplishment was a fast gun. The kid had always been a source of amusement to Willett, even when some of his customers complained about Billy Ray’s threatening swagger. Willett only laughed and chided them that Billy Ray was just talking. But recently, Billy Ray had done more than just talk. This was bad business, this thing that Billy Ray had done to the town, worse even than the underhanded way he had killed that young cowhand. Sam Ingram was a well thought-of man in Dry Fork. One of the original settlers, he was respected by almost all of the town’s citizens. Will Andrews had not been a part of the community long enough for folks to know him very well, but all indications had been that he was a welcome addition to the growing town. Billy Ray was no longer amusing.

“I couldn’t help but hear what Sonny said about lynching talk,” Willett said. Billy Ray shrugged his indifference. Willett continued. “If I was you, I believe I’d think about that some. You killed a couple of people that are gonna be mourned in this town, and folks ain’t gonna think any too kindly toward you for puttin’ ’em under. You know, you mighta outgrowed Dry Fork. Might be time to move on.”

At first Billy Ray was taken aback to hear Willett Burns suggest it might be best for him to leave town. Willett had been the closest thing to a father Billy had ever known. For a split second, Billy Ray started to flush with anger. “I ain’t scared of Lon Fortson. I’d like to see him try to arrest me.”

“Hell, it ain’t gonna be Lon Fortson. If Sonny got it right, they’re talking about a posse.”

“I ain’t runnin’ from no bunch of storekeepers. If they wanna tangle with me, I’ll see to it that there’ll be a sight less folks around here.”

“Billy Ray,” Willett began patiently, “these folks ain’t plannin’ to come at you one at a time so you can show ’em how fast you are with that damn gun of yours.” Billy Ray started to protest, but Willett cut him off. “These folks aim to string you up, son. And don’t think they won’t do it. Most every one of these storekeepers, as you call ’em, had to fight Injuns from two different tribes to hold on to their homes.” He sat back in his chair and relaxed. “I’m just offerin’ you a piece of advice. Dry Fork might become a little uncomfortable for you.”

“Yeah, well, I ain’t worried about the whole damn lot of ’em,” Billy Ray boasted.

“Suit yourself,” Willett said and got up to return to the bar.

“I always do,” was Billy Ray’s cocky retort. But as he sat there, he thought about what Willett was trying to tell him, and for the first time, he gave it serious consideration. He was no longer welcome in Dry Fork. He could defy the town for only so long before somebody took a shot at him with a rifle, or jumped him by surprise. The more thought he gave his situation, the more he began to think it might be a lot healthier for him to put the dust of Dry Fork behind him. Hell, he thought, I’ve been wanting to go look for some of that gold they’ve been talking about for a while now.

• * *

John Castleberry looked around him at the small group of men gathered in the barn. “Who are we missing?” he asked Walt Collins.

“Broadus Wells,” Walt answered. “I reckon he’ll be along. It’s still five minutes before seven.”

“You coulda put on some coffee,” Clerus Taylor said, rubbing his hands together against the chill, early-morning spring air.

“Hell, I didn’t know this was supposed to be a social,” Walt snorted. “Maybe I shoulda baked up some biscuits, too.”

“Maybe,” Clerus shot back. “I notice you’re always ready to drink my coffee when you come in to get a haircut.”

“Hell, at the prices you charge, you oughta throw in a little bacon, too.”

At that moment, Broadus walked in, putting an end to the meaningless banter. “All right,” Castleberry announced, “we’re all here.” His face a mask of cold resolve, he looked around the group, making eye contact with each one. “Let’s go take care of business.” The six members of the city council, rifles or shotguns cradled in their arms, filed silently out of the barn. Sonny Demry, just reporting for work in the stables, stepped back against the side of the building, and stared wide-eyed as the somber posse passed him.

At that time of morning, there were only a few early risers preparing to open their shops. Barney Tatum, a fire already glowing in his forge, stopped to stare at the solemn group that passed his shop, walking down the middle of the street. There was no word exchanged between him and the posse. He laid his tongs and hammer aside and fell in behind them. He had a fair idea where they were going. He was joined by a few other stragglers, one a cowhand from a nearby spread who had slept off a drunk in an alley. “Where’s everybody goin’?” he asked Barney, which caused John Castleberry to turn to look at him.

“This committee is on official business,” Castleberry informed the spectators, “and I’d advise you to stay back out of the way.” The curious having been fairly warned, he paid them no further attention. The posse continued down the middle of the dirt street.

Bypassing the front door of the Lucky Spur, they went directly around to the back, stopping before the door to the small storeroom where Billy Ray slept. With a nod of the head from Walt Collins, the lynching committee readied their weapons. When all appeared to be ready, Walt nodded again to John Castleberry, and the mayor answered with a slight nod. Without further communication, Walt turned and aimed his size twelve boot at the center of the door. It didn’t give on the first try, and Walt had to kick it several more times before the jamb split and the door swung open. As soon as it slammed back against the inside wall, all six weapons were aimed at the open doorway, all six men ready to pull their triggers if necessary. The room was empty.

Crowding one another in an effort to gain entrance to the room, the posse stood dumbfounded in the dark confines of the windowless storeroom. There was no evidence that Billy Ray lived there—no clothes, no personal articles. There was a cot, but the bedroll was gone. There was no saddle or bridle. “The son of a bitch ain’t here,” Wilson Greenwell said, stating the obvious.

“He lit out last night. I heard him leave after midnight.” The group turned as one to see who had made the statement, finding Willett Burns standing in the shattered doorway. “I reckon he didn’t wanna hang around for your party,” Willett said, oblivious of the unintended pun. “You boys made a nice mess of my storeroom. I reckon you’ll pay for fixin’ my door.”

“It was done on official town business,” the mayor replied, “couldn’t be helped.”

“Is that a fact?” Willett responded impatiently. “If you’d tried it, you’da found out that the damn door wasn’t even locked.”

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