The Trailsman #393: Six-Gun Inferno

The Trailsman #393: Six-Gun Inferno

by Jon Sharpe

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Overview

The Trailsman #393: Six-Gun Inferno by Jon Sharpe

Somebody’s going to burn…

In the Nevada desert town of Inferno, salt and water have become more valuable than gold. The citizens are just short of dying, and local strongman Crillian doesn’t care—he expects them to fork over big bucks for the essentials of life. But the Trailsman aims to make Crillian pay—with salt, water, and blood…

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451468048
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Series: Trailsman Series , #393
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.50(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jon Sharpe is the author of the long-running Trailsman western series, featuring the adventures of tracker Skye Fargo.

Read an Excerpt

HEAVEN-SENT

Bubaker said, “You’re not fixing to leave Inferno anytime today, are you?”

Beginnings . . . they bend the tree and they mark the man. Skye Fargo was born when he was eighteen. Terror was his midwife, vengeance his first cry. Killing spawned Skye Fargo, ruthless, cold-blooded murder. Out of the acrid smoke of gunpowder still hanging in the air, he rose, cried out a promise never forgotten.

The Trailsman they began to call him all across the West: searcher, scout, hunter, the man who could see where others only looked, his skills for hire but not his soul, the man who lived each day to the fullest, yet trailed each tomorrow. Skye Fargo, the Trailsman, the seeker who could take the wildness of a land and the wanting of a woman and make them his own.

1861—the sunbaked desert of southwestern Nevada, where a bullet to the brain is the least of a man’s worries.

1

The rider was a red-hot coal, his lungs a furnace. When he breathed, he swore he inhaled fire. The desert country of Nevada Territory was no place to be in the hottest month of the summer.

Skye Fargo drew rein and squinted from under his hat brim at the blazing source of his discomfort. “Where’s a cloud when you need one?” he grumbled at the clear blue sky.

Fargo reached for his canteen but thought better of it. There was barely a third left and he had a lot of miles to cover.

A big man, broad at the shoulders, he wore buckskins and a white hat so coated with dust it looked to be brown. A well-worn Colt hung at his waist; a red bandanna added color to his neck. He swallowed, or tried to, and grimaced at how dry his throat had become. “The next time I say I want to take a shortcut,” he said to his horse, “kick me.”

The Ovaro twitched an ear. Head hung low, lathered with sweat, the stallion needed water more than Fargo did. Fargo patted its neck and said, “We’ll get you a drink soon, big fella.”

Or so Fargo hoped. The truth was, he’d decided to cut across a section of desert he’d never been through before, and now here he was, miles from anywhere, in the middle of an expanse of sand dunes and flats where the earth had been baked dry of life.

Fargo gigged the Ovaro into motion. He tried not to dwell on the last three creek beds they’d come across. The creeks ran with water only in the winter. Now they were as dry as his mouth.

The stallion plodded on.

Fargo bowed his head and closed his eyes. He imagined being in a saloon in the cool of an evening with a saucy dove on his lap and a bottle of Monongahela at his elbow. The woman was running her fingers through his hair and whispering the naughty things she’d like to do with him, but then a harsh voice intruded on his daydream.

“Where do you reckon you’re goin’, mister?”

Fargo snapped his head up and drew rein. “What the hell?”

There were two of them. Hard cases with six-shooters on their hips and suspicion in their eyes. Behind them were two horses. Neither the men nor their animals showed any sign of being withered by the sun.

“Can’t you read?” the same man said, pointing.

Fargo looked, and blinked. “I must be sunstruck.”

Someone had planted a sign. In painted letters it read INFERNO SALT LICK. TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT.

“Move along, mister,” the second curly wolf said. “We won’t tell you twice.”

“My horse can use some water. There must be some hereabouts.”

The first man stuck his thumbs in his gun belt. He wore a high-crowned hat and a vest that could use a cleaning. “Maybe there is and maybe there ain’t. Turn that nag and light a shuck.”

“I asked nice,” Fargo said.

The second man gestured at hills to the north. “You see yonder? That’s the lick. There’s a spring. But Mr. Crillian, who runs things, doesn’t let anybody take a drink except him and those who work for him.”

“Which would be us,” the first man said.

“If you want water,” the second man said, and gestured to the east, “Inferno is about five miles thataway.”

“Inferno?”

The man in the high-crowned hat snickered. “You have no notion of where you are, do you, buckskin?”

“Daniel Boone here must be lost, Clell,” the second man joked.

“Dumb as a stump, Willy,” Clell said.

They laughed.

Fargo’s gaze fell on their horses, and on what was hanging from their saddle horns. “How much for one of your canteens?”

“They ain’t for sale,” Clell said. “Mosey on, or else.”

“I’ll pay you twenty dollars for one,” Fargo offered.

“You don’t listen too good, mister,” Willy said. “You’re not gettin’ any water. You’re on private property, and you’ve been told to scat.”

“So scat,” Clell said.

Fargo sighed. He looked at the blue sky and at the two guards and at the Ovaro, wearily hanging its head. Before the men could guess his intent, he swung down and took a step to one side, his hand brushing his holster. “Thirty-one dollars, but that’s all I have.”

Clell and Willy couldn’t seem to believe their eyes.

“What does it take to get through that thick skull of yours?” Clell said.

“We want you gone, mister,” Willy said. “We want you gone now.”

“My horse needs water,” Fargo said again.

“Tough,” Willy said. “You can’t make us give you any, not if we don’t want to.”

“Which we don’t,” Clell said. “Your critter can keel over, for all I care. Climb back on and make yourself scarce.”

Fargo had no right to do what he was about to. But he was prickly where the Ovaro was concerned. Plus, he never could abide jackasses. “Either I pay you or I help myself. Your choice.”

“Try and you die,” Willy warned. “We’ll give you to the count of three and then we will by-God gun you if you’re not back on that animal of yours.” He paused, and when Fargo didn’t move, barked out, “One.”

“To hell with that,” Clell said. “You don’t need to count. I’ll settle his hash here and now.” So saying, he stabbed for his six-gun.

2

Fargo drew and fanned a single shot from the hip before Clell cleared leather. The slug slammed into Clell’s shoulder and spun him half around. Clell clutched himself and staggered, his revolver forgotten in the shock of being shot.

“You son of a bitch,” Willy said.

Fargo covered him. “Unbuckle your gun belt and let it drop.” He cocked his Colt as incentive.

Willy stared at the scarlet seeping between Clell’s fingers and hastily did as he’d been told. “You’ve just made the worst mistake of your life. Mr. Crillian won’t like this one bit.”

“Disarm your pard,” Fargo said. He was eager to check their canteens but he didn’t want a bullet in the back.

“We’ll be comin’ for you, mister,” Willy declared. “We’ll find you and we’ll bury you.”

Fargo pointed the Colt at Willy’s face. “Without the jabber, if you don’t mind, and even if you do.”

Muttering, Willy tossed Clell’s gun belt.

Clell was still conscious, but his jaw was clenched and he quaked like an aspen leaf. “I’ll kill you for this if it’s the last thing I ever do.”

“Sure you will.” Sidling around them, Fargo stepped to a roan and slid the strap of the canteen over the saddle horn. He shook the canteen and smiled. It was half full. “Lie on the ground.”

“The hell I will,” Clell snarled.

“Either breathing or dead. Which will it be?”

Clell uttered a string of invectives, but he eased down with Willy’s help. The pair lay there and glowered.

Fargo lowered the hammer and holstered the Colt. Opening the canteen, he took off his hat, poured the water in, and held the hat to the Ovaro’s muzzle so the stallion could drink. “Here you go.”

The Ovaro practically sucked it down.

“I hope that horse is worth your hide, mister,” Willy said. “That’s what this will cost you.”

“Speaking of which,” Fargo said. He jammed his hat back on, dropped the empty canteen, and fished in a pocket for his poke. Fingering out twenty dollars, he flipped the coins so they landed next to Clell. “For the water.”

“We don’t want your damn money,” Clell spat.

“We want your blood,” Willy said.

Replacing his poke, Fargo forked leather. “This Inferno you mentioned—it’s a town, I take it?” A town he’d never heard of. Which wasn’t unusual. New ones sprang up all the time.

“Go to hell,” Willy said. “We’re not tellin’ you a thing.”

“Is everyone there as friendly as you two?”

“Go to hell twice over,” Willy said. “In the first place, we’re not from the damn town. We work for Mr. Crillian and stay at the lick. And in the second place, if you’re thinkin’ they’ll help you, they won’t. They don’t dare buck Mr. Crillian. He has them under his thumb.”

“Do tell,” Fargo said.

“He won’t take this lyin’ down,” Clell said. “As sure as you’re sittin’ there, he’ll send some of us after you.”

“I’ll tremble in my boots until then.”

Clell spewed another string of obscenities. He was so mad, his face was flushed red and his veins bulged.

Fargo touched his hat brim. “Nice meeting you,” he said, rubbing it in. Twisting, he made it a point to keep them in sight until he was out of rifle range. They didn’t try to pick him off, though. Willy was busy bandaging Clell.

Reluctantly, Fargo brought the Ovaro to a trot. The sooner they reached the town, the sooner the stallion could have more water.

A pockmarked road led him to it. There looked to be three dozen buildings or so. Few were more than one story.

At the town limits was another sign. INFERNO. POP. 78. The 78 had a black line through it and below it was 61.

Few folks were out and about. An elderly woman in a bonnet regarded him as she might a rabid coyote. Several men outside the general store scrutinized him as if he were a hostile come to scalp their loved ones. Faces peered at him from windows and doorways.

Everyone Fargo saw had a haggard aspect about them.

He drew rein at a trough that had a few inches of dirty water at the bottom. Climbing down, he was about to let the Ovaro dip its head when a gun hammer clicked.

“No, you don’t, stranger.”

A gent with a tin star on his shirt had come out of a building with TOWN MARSHAL over the door. He had bristly eyebrows and a cleft chin, and he was pointing a shotgun. He also had the same worn-out look as the rest of them. From the way his clothes sagged, it appeared he had lost considerable weight recently.

“My horse needs it,” Fargo said.

“Afraid I can’t let you,” the lawman said. “I’m Marshal Bubaker. Who might you be?”

Fargo told him.

“Well, Mr. Fargo, it’s like this,” Bubaker said, moving to the other side of the trough. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the middle of a drought. The hottest damn summer anyone can recollect. It’s so bad, we have to ration our water.” He nodded at the dirty bit in the trough. “Even that sludge.”

“Look at my horse, damn it.”

“I can see he’s tuckered. Put him up at the stable. It’s ten dollars, but he’ll get oats and enough to drink.”

“Ten?” Fargo said. The amount was outrageous. It would leave him with a dollar to his name.

“Do you want your animal to have some water or not?”

Fargo frowned. “First Crillian’s roosters, now this.”

Marshal Bubaker stiffened. “Crillian, you say? What do you have to do with that vulture?”

“I had words with two of his men out near a salt lick.”

“And you’re still breathin’? If any of us from town goes anywhere near that place, they shoot on sight.”

“One of them won’t be doing any shooting for a spell,” Fargo said, and turned to go up the street.

“Hold on,” Marshal Bubaker said. “Why won’t he?”

“He went for his gun.”

“Well, now,” Bubaker said, “this hombre have a handle?”

“Clell.”

“I know him. He’s supposed to be slick with a six-shooter. Not the quickest Crillian has working for him, but still.” The lawman pursed his lips, then motioned at the trough. “Tell you what. Help yourself if you want.”

“Why the change of heart?”

“Let’s just say I want us to get off on the right foot. You’re not fixing to leave Inferno anytime today, are you?”

“Not if I bed my horse for the night at your stable,” Fargo replied, and grinned. “I’ll want to get my ten dollars’ worth.”

“Good.” Bubaker smiled. “Very good. Tend to him, then, and I’ll look you up later so we can have us a talk.” He paused. “What is it you do for a living, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Fargo would have thought it was obvious. “I scout, mostly.”

“Injun fighter?”

“Only when I’ve had to.”

“Even better. I can’t tell you how happy you’ve just made me.”

“If you say so.”

“You don’t know it yet,” Marshal Bubaker said, “but you could be the answer to our prayers.”

3

The saloon was called the Sand Dune.

Several drinkers were at the bar and a couple of card games were under way. Everyone stopped what they were doing to stare when Fargo walked in.

The barkeep weighed enough for two men, yet he, too, looked as if he had been ill recently. He polished a glass and brought it and a full bottle over. “Here you go, friend. On the house.”

About to reach for the bottle, Fargo stopped. “Are you drunk?”

The bartender chuckled. “I hardly touch the stuff, myself. No, Marshal Bubaker was in here and told me that anything you want is on the town.”

“Well, now,” Fargo said in amusement, “I should answer prayers more often.”

“How’s that again?”

“Nothing.” Fargo scooped up the glass and bottle and turned to find a table.

“Anything you want, anything at all”—the bartender wasn’t done—“all you have to do is ask.”

“Are you passing out free money too?”

The barman snorted.

Fargo took a step and had a thought. “What about doves?”

The bartender leaned on an elbow. “I have two who work for me but they don’t start until six. Can you wait that long? If you’re randy and have to have a poke right this minute, I can send for one, but she’s liable to gripe about having to work early and won’t be in the best of moods. You know how contrary females can be.”

“Six is fine.” Fargo picked a corner table. He filled his glass and was savoring his first sip when the batwings creaked and in came Marshal Bubaker with a pair of well-dressed townsmen.

Bubaker looked around, spotted him, and made a beeline. “Fargo, I’d like you to meet Mr. Hoffstedder, our mayor, and Mr. Parkinson, our banker.”

“I’m busy,” Fargo said.

“It’s important you talk to them,” the lawman said.

“I just got here. It can wait.”

Hoffstedder cleared his throat. He was on the scrawny side, with no more meat on him than a pencil. He also had the same worn-out look as the rest. “It’s quite urgent, I assure you.”

“Is everybody in town going to die in the next hour or so?”

“No. Of course not,” Hoffstedder said. “What a silly thing to ask.”

“Then it can wait.”

Parkinson stepped forward. “Perhaps I should mention that you could earn a lot of money if you take us up on our offer.” He had white hair and an air of self-importance.

“I’m not taking you up on anything for an hour,” Fargo said, and wagged his fingers at the batwings. “Shoo.”

“Show some respect,” Marshal Bubaker said. “These are our leading citizens. You should feel honored.”

Fargo drummed his fingers on the table. “I feel thirsty. I feel hungry. I feel plumb worn-out. I’m fixing to take it easy for a while. After I’ve liquored up and had some food, then, and only then, will we have our talk. If that’s not good enough, you know where you can shove it.”

“That was terribly rude,” Hoffstedder said.

“Mister,” Fargo said, “I’m nowhere near rude yet. But we’ll get there right quick if you don’t show some sense.”

Parkinson angrily made as if to speak but Marshal Bubaker held up a hand.

“He’s right. He just rode in, and it’s plain he’s been through hell. We’ve waited this long. We can wait another hour.”

“I suppose,” Hoffstedder said, although he didn’t sound happy about it.

Bubaker steered them toward the batwings. As they went out, he smiled and waved.

“What is it about me that draws idiots like flies?” Fargo asked his bottle. He finished his glass and poured another and felt the weariness and some of the heat drain away. He was tempted to sit in on a card game, but he’d told the welcoming committee they could come back in an hour and he needed something in his belly.

Inferno had one restaurant. It was called Grandpa’s. The man who ran it didn’t look to be over thirty or very healthy. He wore a dirty apron and kept scratching himself as if he had fleas, but he cooked a fine meal. The tray he brought was heaped high with a platter of thick beefsteak and buttered potatoes, a bowl of gravy, and a side plate of bread.

Fargo’s stomach growled at the prospect of hot food. He glanced around the table and asked, “Where’s the salt?”

“There ain’t any.”

“You must have some in the back.” Fargo had never heard of an eatery that didn’t serve salt.

“None means none,” the man said. “If I had some, do you think I’d look like this?” He pointed at his face.

“I don’t savvy,” Fargo admitted.

“Mister, the whole town ran out of salt a coon’s age ago. What with the heat and all, it’s made everybody as sick as dogs.”

“So that’s it,” Fargo said.

The man looked down at himself. “I wish to God I had some.”

“How does a town run out of salt?” Fargo wanted to know.

“It wasn’t easy,” the man said, and walked off.

Fargo remembered the salt lick, the no-trespassing sign, and Clell and Willy. No sooner did the thought cross his mind than the door opened and in walked Willy himself with two new hard cases.

Willy pointed at him and said something, and all three lowered their hands near their hardware.

4

A cold anger formed in the pit of Fargo’s gut and spread like ice through his veins. He slid his right hand under the table as the three spread out with Willy in the middle.

“Bet you never reckoned on seein’ me again,” Willy said.

“Go,” Fargo said, “and take your pards with you.”

“You haven’t even heard why I’m here,” Willy said. “Mr. Crillian wants to see you. He sent me because I’d know who you were.”

“No,” Fargo said.

The man on the left had a scar on his cheek and a sneer on his mouth. “You don’t have a say. What Mr. Crillian wants, Mr. Crillian gets.”

The man on the right nodded. Or “boy” was more like it. He couldn’t be much over sixteen. The Smith & Wesson on his hip looked too big for him to handle. “On your feet, mister. We’re takin’ you to him.”

“No,” Fargo said again.

“All Mr. Crillian wants to do is talk,” Willy said. “He told me to be sure to tell you that.”

“I don’t give a damn.”

The man with the scar said, “We’ll drag you out if we have to.”

“You can try.”

The young one bristled. “You’re not quick enough to gun all three of us before we’d gun you.”

“Hold on,” Willy said. “No one is gunnin’ anybody. All Mr. Crillian wants to do is talk.”

“He’s comin’ or else,” the scarred man said.

“I have a meal to eat,” Fargo told them. “Back up your big words or tuck tail.”

“There won’t be any gunplay,” Willy assured him.

The man with the scar apparently had other ideas. “I heard what you did to Clell, but I’m not him. I’m a hell of a lot quicker.”

Willy glared. “Nesbitt, damn it. Sheathe your horns. How many times must I say it? All Mr. Crillian wants is to talk.”

“He can’t talk if this hombre won’t go,” Nesbitt said. “We’re takin’ him to Mr. Crillian whether he wants to come or not.”

Fargo had listened to enough. Unfurling from his chair, he said, “Start the dance or get the hell out.”

“We’re not here to shoot,” Willy said.

“I’ll start it, all right,” Nesbitt spat.

“No!” Willy cried.

Nesbitt went for his six-gun.

Fargo drew and fanned two swift shots that smashed the tough guy back and toppled him like a chopped tree.

Nesbitt’s mouth worked and a rivulet of blood trickled from a corner of his mouth. He gasped once and went limp.

“Hell!” the young one exclaimed.

“No shootin’! No shootin’!” Willy said.

Fargo twirled his Colt into his holster and said to the young one, “Do you want to dance, too?”

“You’ve done killed Nesbitt.”

“He killed himself by being stupid. How about you? Are you a jackass, too?”

“Everybody calm down,” Willy said. “This has gotten out of hand.”

“I’m no jackass,” the young one snarled. “And now that I’ve seen you draw, I think I can beat you.”

“This Crillian must like to hire lunkheads,” Fargo said.

With an oath, the young one streaked his hand to his Smith & Wesson.

Fargo’s own hand was lightning. He slicked the Colt and fanned it once and a hole appeared in the boy’s forehead. The would-be badman swayed and whimpered and buckled.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Willy said anxiously. “Mr. Crillian will have my hide. Hell, hell, hell.”

Fargo pointed the Colt. “Your turn.”

“Hold on!” Willy shrieked. “You heard me say no shootin’. It’s not my fault they didn’t listen.”

“You brought them.”

“Mr. Crillian told me to,” Willy said.

“Then this is on him.” Fargo sat back down but kept the Colt pointed. “Drag them out and throw them over their horses and take them to your boss with my regards.”

“He’ll be awful mad.”

“Do I look like I give a damn?”

“You won’t go back with me and talk to him?”

Fargo stared.

“I was just askin’.” Willy stepped to Nesbitt, bent, and grabbed hold of Nesbitt’s wrists. “You’d be doin’ yourself a favor if you went.”

“You don’t know when to shut up, do you?”

“All I’m sayin’ is that the next time Mr. Crillian might send six or ten of us. You can’t shoot that many.”

“I have plenty of cartridges,” Fargo said.

“Damn, you have a lot of bark on you.”

“Less jabber and more dragging.”

“Fine. First you shoot my other pard and now you shoot these two. I can’t say as I like you very much.”

Just then the front door opened and in burst Marshal Bubaker. “I heard shots and . . .” The lawman stopped and gaped. “Hell in a basket. What’s this?”

“He shoots everybody,” Willy said.

“I’ve seen you before,” Marshal Bubaker said. “You’re one of Crillian’s gun hands.”

“I may give it up after all this,” Willy said, continuing to pull. “Out of my way before he shoots me, too.”

Bubaker moved aside and came over. “You’re plumb hell on wheels, mister. But I reckon you know that.”

“What I am is hungry,” Fargo said. “How about if you keep an eye on Willy there while I eat?”

Willy was going out the door back-first, and heard him. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not about to brace you. I know when not to push my luck. Dreel likely can take you, but I’m not him.”

“Why am I still hearing you prattle?”

“I’m commencin’ to hate you,” Willy said.

“I’ll watch him for you,” Marshal Bubaker offered. “As much for the town as for you. Two dead is enough. Crillian will be mad enough to spit tacks. He might even raise his price.”

“Price?” Fargo said.

“On the salt,” Marshal Bubaker said. “It’s already so high, we won’t pay it. If it goes any higher, everybody in town will be up in arms.”

“Good for them,” Fargo said absently as he picked up the knife and fork. He couldn’t wait to tear into the steak.

“You don’t understand,” Marshal Bubaker said. “It won’t be Crillian they’ll want to string up.” He paused. “It’ll be you.”

5

All Fargo wanted was to eat his meal in peace. Despite himself, though, he was curious, and remarked, “I must have missed something.”

“You’ve missed a lot,” Marshal Bubaker said. “I’ll explain in a bit.” He turned and went out. When Willy came back in for the young gun hand, Bubaker was with him. Together they hoisted the body and carried it out.

After a while Bubaker returned. He closed the door, came to the table, and tiredly sank into a chair. “He’s gone. I saw him ride out of town with my own eyes.”

Fargo was chewing a delicious piece of steak and fat and didn’t respond.

“In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this whole business is about salt.”

Fargo wondered if he should mention he had some in his saddlebags. Not much. He was running low and could stand to buy more.

“You’ve seen how sickly everyone looks?” Marshal Bubaker asked.

“Now that you mention it,” Fargo said with his mouth full.

“It’s because we haven’t had any salt in months. And with the heat as bad as it’s been, well . . .” Bubaker shrugged. “I never gave salt much thought before, but according to our doc, when you go without it for too long, all sorts of things happen. You get headaches. You throw up. You’re tired all the time. You get cramps. And if you keep going without, you can die.”

“Anyone died here?”

“Not yet,” Bubaker said. “But the other night Mrs. Carmody had a fit. She flopped around on the floor with foam coming out of her mouth. The doc says it was a close thing.”

“There’s a salt lick five miles away,” Fargo said.

Bubaker frowned and sat back. “That’s where we would get ours if Mr. Jensen still owned it. But Crillian came in and took control. Him and his gun hands. Then he raised the price to ten times what it used to be. When we refused to pay, he cut us off and we’ve been cut off ever since.”

“Back up,” Fargo said. “How did he get control?”

“Crillian claims he bought the salt lick from Jensen and has a bill of sale to prove it.” Bubaker’s frown deepened. “But no one has seen Jensen since the sale took place. Jensen was an old coot. Ornery as hell. He was the first to settle in these parts. He liked living out there. Liked it so much, he was mad when the town sprang up. Had to about twist his arm to get him to sell us salt. I couldn’t see him selling out. The whole thing is suspicious.”

“You reckon?” Fargo said.

“Here now,” the lawman said. “Suspicion ain’t proof. I can’t go out and arrest Crillian on a hunch.”

“Why not send someone east for a wagon of salt to tide you over?” Fargo suggested.

“You think we haven’t thought of that?” Bubaker retorted. “We sent a man and never heard from him, so we sent another and never heard from him. I was against sending a third but everyone wanted to, so we did and he never came back, either.”

“Crillian’s doing?”

“That would be my guess. There’s only one trail through the desert to the mountains and he might have men watching it.” Bubaker tiredly rubbed his brow. “It’s a fine mess we’re in.”

Fargo had another suggestion. “Arm every man in town and ride out to the salt lick and take it over.”

“Crillian has pretty near twenty guns riding for him. We’d outnumber them, but no one in town is much shucks with a gun, and that includes me. They’d likely shoot us to ribbons.”

“So you just wither away?”

Marshal Bubaker brightened. “Not if we can help it. And that’s where you come in.”

“I have about thirty minutes yet.”

“Sorry?” Bubaker said.

“I wanted an hour, remember?”

“Oh. And here I am, bending your ear.” Bubaker pushed his chair back and stood. “Sorry. I forgot, what with the bodies and all.” He turned and walked out, his shoulders slumped in fatigue.

Fargo forked another piece of steak into his mouth. He had a fair idea of what they were going to ask of him. Should he or shouldn’t he? That was the question. He had no personal stake in their fight. That they had let it go this far showed a remarkable lack of grit.

The owner ended Fargo’s reverie by setting a saucer and cup down and filling the cup with piping hot coffee. “I would have brought this sooner but for all the lead flying around.”

“They were on the prod,” Fargo said.

“I saw the whole thing,” the man said. “Fact is, I’m glad you gunned them. It’s about time Crillian was taken down a peg or three. Or better yet, bucked out in gore.”

“I’m not a killer for hire.”

“Too bad. We could use one right about now.” Wiping his hands on his apron, the man went into the back.

Fargo finished his meal in peace and quiet. He tried not to think about the town and all the people suffering from salt deprivation. He didn’t know any of them personally. It was none of his affair. Except that twice now, gun sharks who worked for this Crillian had tried to put windows in his skull. Now that, he did take personally. He wasn’t a cheek-turner and never had been. When someone tried to plant him, he was happy to return the favor.

His belly full, he was sitting there drinking coffee and musing when the door opened and in came Marshal Bubaker. He wasn’t alone. With him were Parkinson, the banker, and a surprise—a woman.

Bubaker didn’t mince words. “It’s been an hour. Can we talk now? We have an offer to make you.”

Fargo had made up his mind. “Let’s hear it,” he said.

6

The lawman pulled out a chair for the lady and she gracefully sat and showed her fine teeth in a warm smile.

“How do you do? I’m Melissa Gebhart. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Fargo was pleased to make hers. She was an eyeful. Lustrous copper hair framed an oval face with bright green eyes, a slender nose, and lips as full as ripe cherries. Her dress had lace at the throat and at the sleeve cuffs. Pearl buttons ran from her throat to her middle. Her bosom would be the envy of many a female, as would her long legs. She was a vision, yet she, too, had the same haggard look as most everyone else.

Parkinson, the banker, cleared his throat. “Miss Gebhart runs a millinery shop and is very active in civic matters.”

“You don’t say,” Fargo said. It was rare for a woman to involve herself in politics. Especially since women had yet to be allowed to vote.

“Tell him the other reason I’m here,” Melissa said.

“It’s hardly proper,” Parkinson said.

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