The Gun Fight
By Richard Matheson
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1993 RXR, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The chaparral bird was running a fierce race with the black roan as it pounded across the hard earth. The long legs of the bird flashed wildly in a swirl of alkali dust, ten yards ahead of the roan's battering hooves.
Off the wide trail, a jackrabbit bounded into the brush with great, erratic leaps. Awakened by the muffled thunder in the earth, a coiled rattlesnake writhed sluggishly and lifted its flat head, dead eyes searching.
The tall roan galloped along the trail, its broad legs drawing high, then driving down quickly at the dust-clouded earth. The spur rowels of its young rider raked once across its heaving flanks and the thick weave of muscles underneath its hide drove it on still faster.
Robby Coles paid no attention to the long-beaked roadrunner skittering its weaving path on the trail ahead. He rode close-seated, his knees clamped against the roan's flanks, his booted feet braced forward and out against the stirrups. Beneath the broad brim of his Stetson, his dark eyes peered straight ahead at the out fences of the small ranch he approached.
The driving hooves came too close and the chaparral bird lunged off the trail, racing into the brush. The roan thundered on, following the twists of the trail, a thin froth blowing from its muzzle. Spur rowels scratched again, the horse leaped forward obediently, past the tall and spiny-branched cholla cactus, galloping past the first fence line of the ranch.
Now the rider's eyes focused on the far-off cluster of buildings that comprised the ranch layout. His thin lips pressed together into a blood-pinched line and there was a strained movement in his throat. Was he there? The question drifted like smoke across his mind and he felt sweat dripping down beneath his shirt collar and realized, abruptly, how thirsty he was.
Cold resolve forced itself into his eyes again and his slender hands tightened on the sweat-slick reins. He could feel the rhythmic pounding inside his body as the hooves of his roan pistoned against the hard earth. He could feel the arid bluntness of the wind buffeting across his cheeks and against his forehead; the abrasive rubbing of his legs against the horse's flanks.
There were other things he felt, too.
As the hooves of his mount drummed along the trail, Robby Coles noticed, from the corners of his eyes, the aimless wandering of cattle beyond the fences. He swallowed hot air and coughed once as the dustiness tickled in his throat. The ranch was a half mile distant now. Robby Coles reached down nervously and touched the smooth walnut of his gun stock. He wondered if he should be wearing it.
Merv Linken was coming out of the barn, carrying a pitchfork, when the big black roan came charging into the open area between the barn and the main house.
At first, the horse headed for the main house. Then the rider saw Merv and pulled his mount around sharply. Merv stood watching as the roan cantered over and stopped before him, its flanks heaving, hot breath steaming from its nostrils.
"Hello there, Robby," Merv said, smiling up at the grim-faced young rider. "What brings you out in sech a rush?"
Robby Coles drew in a quick breath and forced it out.
"Benton here?" he asked breathlessly, his dark-eyed gaze drifting toward the main house.
"No, he ain't," Merv said. "Matter o' fact, he's to town gettin' supplies."
He saw how the skin tightened across Robby's cheeks and how his mouth pressed suddenly into a line.
"Guess you rode out fer nothin'," Merv said, then shrugged. "Unless you want to set and wait."
"How long's he been gone?" Robby's voice sounded thin and disturbed above the shuddering pants of his roan. He drew out a bandanna and mopped at his face.
"Oh ... I reckon, since about eight," Merv said. "Said he was —"
He stopped talking abruptly as Robby jerked the horse around and kicked his spur rowels in. The sweat-flecked roan started forward, breaking into a hard gallop before it passed the bunk house.
Merv Linken stood there a while, leaning on the pitchfork, watching Robby Coles ride away toward town. Then he shrugged and turned toward the house.
Julia Benton came walking in quick strides across the yard, drying her hands. She was a tall woman, slender and softly curved, her hair a light blond.
"Who was that?" she asked.
"Young Robby Coles," Merv answered.
"What did he want?"
"Got no notion, ma'm," Merv told her. "Just came in, tight-leggin' and asked for the old man."
"Is that all?"
"That's all, ma'm. Reckon he's headed for Kellville to see Mr. Benton now."
They stood silent for a moment, watching from beneath the shading of their palms, the roan and its rider dwindle into the distance of the brush country.
"He's sure bakin' that hoss," Merv said. "Must be anxious to see yore husband."
Julia Benton stood motionless in the hot sunlight, a look of uneasy curiosity in her eyes. She watched until she couldn't see the horse any longer.
Then she went back to her dishes.
"Well, I don't know," John Benton said, with a slow shake of his head. "They may scratch Hardin's name from the black book for now." He grinned briefly. "But I think they'll have to put it back in again."
He raked a sulfur match across his boot heel and held the flare to the end of the cigarette he'd just rolled. He grimaced slightly at the acrid sulfur smell in his nostrils, then blew out a puff of smoke from the corner of his mouth. He shook out the match and tossed it into the sand-filled tobacco box on the floor.
"No," he said to the three men at the bar with him. "Writin' off Wes Hardin because he's in Rusk Prison now — that's a bet I wouldn't take."
"You think he'll bust out?" asked Henry Oliver, the portly owner of one of Kellville's dry goods stores.
"Well, I ... wouldn't think that either," Benton said, picking the cigarette from his lips and blowing out a cloud of smoke. "He'll try bustin' out, sure enough, but that's quite a place to bust out of. I used to go there quite a few times takin' in prisoners." He fingered his glass of whiskey. "Pretty stiff," he said, nodding once. "I wouldn't think he'd bust out."
"How else can he get out then?" Bill Fisher asked him. "He's in for twenty-five years, ain't he?"
Benton thumped down his glass and smacked his lips as the whiskey threaded its heat down his throat.
"Well," he said, "twenty-five years is the sentence, all right. But there's always paroles. Even pardons."
"Damn right," Fisher replied, nodding purse-lipped and staring into the amber depths of his drink. "They's plenty of folks think Wes Hardin got a bum deal for doin' what he had to do. Ain't that right, Benton?"
John Benton twisted his broad-muscled shoulders a little and scratched once at his crop of darkly blond hair.
"Couldn't say, Fisher," he answered, shaking his head. "They never put me on the case. You know as much about Hardin as I do."
"If they had put you on the case, John Benton," said Henry Oliver expansively, waving a thick finger at the tall man, "Mister John Wesley Hardin would have been in Rusk Prison long ago."
"He'd a been in the boneyard long ago," John Sutton added hurriedly, his young voice eager to please.
John Benton only chuckled softly and gestured toward Pat, the bartender, for another drink. He put the cigarette between his lips again and listened amusedly as the men went on discussing the imprisonment of Hardin and the possibilities of his escaping. He nodded once to Pat as the glass was filled, then touched the smooth sides of the glass with his long, sure fingers, a mild expression on his strongly cut face.
"Isn't that so, Benton?" said Joe Sutton, with the tone of a novice seeking ultimate authority.
"What's that, Sutton?" Benton asked.
"I say Wes Hardin killed more men with his border roll than any other way."
The beginning of a smile twitched at the corners of Benton's wide mouth. "As I said," he answered, "what I know about Hardin you could put in a pea shell and rattle."
He stiffened suddenly, his legs going rigid, the amiable expression wiped from his face as Joe Sutton reached down for his pistol. Instinctively, his right hand shot across his body to the spot on his left where his pistol would have been if he'd worn one.
Joe Sutton held out his pistol, butt first. "Show how he does it," he asked, oblivious. "Show how Hardin rolls it."
The tenseness melted imperceptibly from Benton's face, his body relaxed and the movement of his hand continued up smoothly to his glass. The smile returned.
"Sutton, never do that," he said, without rancor. "When a man goes for his gun, he should mean business. You can get yourself killed that way."
Sutton looked blank. "Well," he said, "I know you don't pack no gun and I just thought ..."
His pistol hand dropped and he looked crestfallen. Joe Sutton was one of the many in Kellville who idolized Benton.
"Forget it," Benton said, grinning. "Just don't want to see you leanin' into a bullet. Here, give it here. I'll show you how he does it."
Sutton handed over the pistol happily and Benton opened the cylinder and spilled out six cartridges on the bar top.
He shook his head. "Sutton, you should only put five bullets in the wheel. You keep the hammer on the empty chamber. That's for safety; otherwise you're liable to shoot your leg off."
Sutton looked rueful again. "Think I'll throw it away," he muttered and a chuckle sounded in Benton's deep chest.
"Just have to be careful," he said.
"You want to use my gun too?" Bill Fisher asked. "Hardin uses two."
"One or two, it doesn't matter," Benton said. "Same in either hand."
The three men and the bartender watched in fascination as the tall Benton stepped back from the bar and stuck the pistol under the belt of his Levi's.
"Now say I been throwed down on," he told them. "I didn't get any chance to draw my iron. So the man, whoever he is, asks me to hand over my gun. So ..."
Benton reached down and the men saw him draw the pistol slowly, then hold it out toward them, butt first, his forefinger curled limply in the trigger guard.
"Then —" Benton said.
Suddenly the pistol blurred in their sight as he rolled it backward and, before they could blink their eyes, the sound of the clicking hammer reached their ears.
"You see, you fire with the webbing of your thumb," Benton told them. "Your trigger finger is just the pivot."
"Jeez." An awed Joe Sutton shook his head slowly. "I couldn't even see it."
Benton smiled. "You're not s'posed to," he said. "That's the point, Sutton." The smile faded. "Anyway it's a snaky trick," he said. "When a man's outdone fair and square, he's got no right to cheat his way back to winning."
In the momentary silence, Joe Sutton asked, "Why don't you pack a gun no more, Benton?"
Benton's almost expressionless gaze flicked up at him.
"Don't ask a man questions like that, Sutton," he said quietly. "That's a man's own business."
"Gee, Benton, I'm sorry. I —" Sutton looked apologetically at him.
But Benton was looking down at the pistol, hefting it idly in his palm as if he were weighing the merits of what it represented to him. For a moment, his mouth was pressed into a firm line. Then he shrugged once.
"Oh, well," he said casually. "Here; catch." He tossed the pistol back to Sutton.
Sutton caught it fumblingly in both hands. Benton tossed his cigarette into the gaboon and shook his head with a wry smile.
"Sutton, you'll have to learn to snatch a gun and set it goin' at the same time." His eyes glinted with detached amusement. "That is," he said, "if you mean to be a real, sure-fire gun shark."
Sutton still looked blank as Benton took a deep breath and threw off his momentary seriousness.
"Throw it here," he told Sutton. "I'll show you."
Sutton tossed the pistol and saw it plucked cleanly from the air and, in the same moment, fired.
"You see?" Benton said, "there's a lot more to gunplay than just a fast draw."
Without seeming to look, he flung the pistol to his left and cocked and fired it in the second his hand caught it.
"They call it the shift," he said. "You'll need that if your shootin' arm takes a slug."
He tossed the pistol back into his right hand and cocked it, the barrel aimed toward the double doors.
The young man who came pushing through them recoiled with a start, his face paling.
Benton grinned and dropped the pistol barrel. "Don't worry, Coles," he said, "nothin' in the wheel but air."
He tossed the pistol back to Sutton again and returned to his drink as the men greeted Robby.
"What time is it, Pat?" Benton asked the bartender.
Pat drew out his gold watch. "About quarter to eleven," he said.
Benton grunted. "Have to be goin' soon. Or the missus will be riding in after me." His smile was inward, seeming to impart a secret pleasure to him as he picked up his glass.
Then he put down the glass and looked aside.
"You want to see me, Coles?" he asked the young man who stood tensely beside him.
"Yes, I want to see you."
Benton's mouth tightened as he heard the sullen anger in Robby Coles' voice. He took his boot off the rail and turned completely.
"What is it, kid?" he asked curiously.
Robby stood there rigidly, unable to control the shaking in his slender body. At his sides, his hands were clenched into white fists and the repressed fury in his face was thinned by apprehension.
"Well?" Benton asked, his brow furrowing quizzically.
Robby swallowed convulsively.
"You better watch out," he said, hoarsely.
The three men at the bar heard the tenseness in Robby's voice and they looked down curiously at him.
"Watch out for what?" Benton asked.
Robby drew in a ragged breath and let it falter through clenched teeth. "Just be careful," he said, his face growing paler.
Benton's left hand raised up as if in a gesture of question. Then it dropped down and he shook his head in small, tight movement. "I don't get you, kid," he said. "What are you trying to say?"
Robby shuddered and forced his lips together.
"Just leave my girl alone," he said, his voice weakening.
Benton's expression grew suddenly blank. He leaned back as if to get a better look at Robby.
"Your girl?" he said, uncomprehendingly. "What does —"
"Well, she told me!" Robby burst out, suddenly. "So I know, I know! You don't have to lie to me!"
Benton's eyes flinted. "What are you saying?" he asked coldly.
Robby swallowed again, a look of sudden dread flaring in his eyes.
"Let's have it, kid," Benton said. "Chew it finer. What's all this about your girl?"
Robby seemed to dredge down into himself for the strengthening of courage. He drew back his lean shoulders and forced out a rasping breath.
"She told me how you been botherin' her," he said in a clipped voice. "And I'm tellin' you to stop."
The anger drifted from Benton's face. For a long moment, he looked at Robby without expression. Then he shook his head once, as if wonderingly.
"You're out of your mind," he said quietly and turned back to the bar with another shake of his head.
Robby stood there trembling.
"Listen, Benton," he said, the anger desperate in his voice, "I'm not afraid of you."
Benton glanced aside. "Kid," he said, "go home. Get outta here and we'll forget what you said. Just don't hang around."
"Benton, damn it!" Robby yelled.
Benton turned brusquely, his face hard with restrained temper. "Listen, kid, I'm tellin' you to —"
He jerked back his head in sudden shock as the white-faced Robby flailed out with his right fist. Flinging up his left arm, he knocked aside the erratic blow.
"What are you —" he started amazedly, then had to ward aside another blow driven at his chest by Robby. His hand shot down and caught Robby's left wrist in a grip of iron.
"Coles, have you gone plumb —"
But Robby was too far gone now. His lips drawn back in a grimace both furious and terror-stricken, he drove his right fist out again and it thudded off Benton's broad shoulder. The men at the bar watched in dumbfounded amazement and Pat came hurrying around the foot of the counter.
Benton tried to catch Robby's right wrist and pin him completely but, before he could, the bunched fist grazed his left cheek, reddening the skin.
"Well, the hell —" he suddenly snapped and drove a short, pulled blow into Robby's stomach. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Gun Fight by Richard Matheson. Copyright © 1993 RXR, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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