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Authors: William Colt MacDonald

Tags: #western

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BOOK: Shoot Him On Sight
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Now I stripped off my own clothing and did what I could to get dry. After that, I propped up some dried sticks near the fire and placed our clothing across them to dry. After a time they began to steam. The moon dropped as the night passed. From time to time I'd take a look at Jordan to see if he was all right. So far as I could tell, he was. He was plenty warm and breathing easily now, though I couldn't be certain whether he was still unconscious, or just sleeping a sleep of exhaustion.

Toward dawn I got back into my clothing, which was still pretty damp, and I was thankful for my dry boots. I inspected Jordan again. His forehead was cool, so I knew there was no temperature rising. He seemed to be sleeping easily and this time I was sure it was sleep. I considered a moment and then moved saddle and blanket, rifle and holstered cartridge belt around the corner of the rock where my horse was tethered. I saddled up and got ready to leave.

The sky was graying in the east when I got back from a final inspection of my patient. All seemed to be well. I rummaged in his things and found a short length of pencil and some paper. My short note would explain, I hoped. Just: "
Sorry to do it this way, but others might not he as understanding as you. Thanks. Regret I can't stay for breakfast. John Cardinal
." I placed a rock on the paper near where he lay. I placed some more wood on the fire. Then I went to my horse and got into the saddle. I walked him easily until well away from the camp.

Sure, my conscience was hurting a little, leaving in such fashion. Webb Jordan had treated me decently. However, I figured we stood Even-Steven: he hadn't blown my head off when he'd had the chance; and as I saw it I'd saved his life, though with a lot of luck, probably. Still, I'd hated like the devil to leave that way, and I wouldn't have, except that I'd felt certain he'd be as healthy as ever when he woke up. So once again I was headed north, out of the Big Bend country and its tall mountains.

 

VI

Two months passed while I continued my aimless wanderings, and I tell you I was getting damn' sick of always having to be looking back over my shoulder, or getting that sort of tightened up, tense feeling every time some hombre happened to give me a second glance when we passed. It was getting so I was a bundle of nerves, never feeling safe unless I was riding in open country with not a soul in sight. If I'd had my way I'd have steered clear of towns all the time, but somehow I just couldn't get away from a craving for companionship now and then, even feeling as I did. And there was the matter of picking up food in stores that was plumb necessary. I was commencing to think that I might feel safer if I left Texas altogether, and practised my merry-go-round existence on some other range. So I headed west again.

Deosso Springs was my next stop. It was there that Lady Luck smiled and then turned against me. Something about the place reminded me of my home town—just in appearance, that's all. I grabbed a bite of food in a Chinese restaurant, then headed for a bar to get a beer before pushing on. I got my beer. Two or three cowhands at the bar seemed friendly and introduced themselves. We shook hands and I gave them the name I was using at the time: Joe Willits. We had another round of drinks. Somebody suggested poker, and a couple more men were drawn into a game. A few questions were asked, at least hinted at. I told 'em I was from near Oklahoma City, riding through on the way to do some visiting with El Paso friends. The game started, and Lady Luck sure smiled for a time. We were playing for just small stakes, but the first few hands I couldn't seem to lose. As I was running low on funds that sort of situation was welcome. When I was some forty-odd dollars ahead, I began to worry. I didn't want to be remembered as the stranger who had such a run of luck.

Not that there was any resentment, only congrats on the way the cards were falling for me. Just the same I was glad when the game broke up, and three of the men had to leave to get back to their outfit. The other fellow, Cal Somebody, suggested we have another beer. I was getting hungry and said so. It was already getting dark outside, and past my supper time. Cal spoke to the barkeep, who produced some beef sandwiches to go with our beer. We retired to a corner table and chewed the fat for a spell.

The bartender had lighted the lamps above the bar by this time, and more customers filtered into the saloon, among them were some rather tough-looking men. I noticed Cal frown at their entrance, and asked who they were.

He shrugged, frown deepening. "I ain't certain. One of 'em is called Hondo by his pals. I don't know the other names. They don't punch for nobody around here. Dropped off the T.N. & A.S. a few days ago, but don't seem to do anything but hang around town, inspectin' the bars. I don't like their looks nohow, but I got to admit they ain't made no trouble."

Neither did I like their looks, but it was none of my business. The man, Hondo, was a big brutish type, with a scarred holster and a weather-beaten sombrero, who looked as though he hadn't shaved in a month. For that matter, I reflected, I hadn't had a razor to my face in a week, and the whiskers were beginning to itch, though sometimes I let 'em go longer as a sort of disguise.

I didn't know it right then, but Lady Luck was getting ready to turn her smile into a frown. I knew I should be shoving on, but I was comfortable, the beer was good and Cal was satisfactory company. He said: "My turn to buy," grabbed our empty bottles and went to the bar. In a moment he returned, bearing two fresh bottles, and a saucer of
pinon
nuts, which went well with the brew.

Customers passed in and out. There were probably a dozen men at the bar, while Cal and I sat and drank. Cigar and cigarette smoke floated lazily near the ceiling. Hub, the fat bartender, seemed to run a quiet, orderly saloon.

The swinging doors at the entrance parted, and a middle-aged man in what is known as a Prince Albert coat entered. He was wearing one of these flat-topped derby hats and carrying a cane. A gold watch chain stretched across his vest, and his hair was white.

"Evenin', Senator," Hub addressed him. "What's your pleasure?" Several other men spoke to him also and each got a courteous reply in a pleasant voice.

I said to Cal, "Looks like polite society has invaded Deosso Springs. That the mayor of your town?"

"Cripes, no," Cal replied. "That's Senator Cyrus Whitlock, from Washington, Dee See. Hell of a nice hombre. Nothing high-toned about him."

"Seems like I've heard the name someplace."

"That's probable. He's that big what-you-call a philanthropist. Says there's nothing like this country out west. I guess he's bought up land here and there, and says he'd like to do something for poor people—"

"Sure, I remember reading something about him a a newspaper one time."

I studied the Senator a few moments. He was a little on the plump side, and wore fuzzy sideburns that were joined by a full white mustache. He was nursing a small drink of whisky while he carried on some sort of chit-chat with the bartender and the men at either side. I noticed when he finished his drink he took out a white silk handkerchief and carefully wiped his lips and mustache. There was something kindly, benevolent, in the old cuss's appearance. He laughed easily at something that had been said, then turned, his back to the bar, and surveyed the room at large. The bartender extended a box of cigars over the Senator's shoulder. Whitlock accepted one and waited while somebody scratched a match for him. He puffed meditatively a moment and then nodded at the men seated at tables along the wall, including Cal and me in the greeting. We both replied to the nods.

I'd seen Hondo and his pals leave the bar some time before, and I was glad they'd gone. Senator Cyrus Whitlock was just the sort of man Hondo and his pals might have started poking fun at. For the Hondo type, a man like the Senator would be a likely butt of some joke.

Cal and I had just resumed our conversation when the swinging doors at the entrance swung open. Then I got a shock I wasn't likely to forget for some time.

The man who had entered was U.S. Deputy Marshal Webb Jordan!

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Good Lord! Couldn't I ever shake the man off? He was like a bull-terrier, the way he hung on.

I'd been watching Senator Whitlock, admiring the way he mixed easily with the others, as he stood, back to bar, idly surveying the room and drawing on his cigar, but when I caught sight of Webb Jordan I wanted to slide suddenly under the table at which Cal and I were sitting.

Cal said, "Huh—a lawman. Wonder what brings him here?"

I scarcely heard him. I slid down in my seat and, without thinking, my hand went fast to my Colt butt.

Cal didn't miss the movement. He said sharply, suspiciously, "What's up? You mixed in some trouble with the law?" He started to rise from the table, as though not wanting any part of me. My hand was still on my gun-butt, and I was shaking all over.

Jordan paused just within the swinging doors, steely glance sweeping around the room. I'd pulled my hat low on my forehead. Had Jordan spotted me, recognized me?

Then his gaze swept on past, and for the moment I breathed easier. His head came back to the center of the room, eyes now on the Senator as he advanced, manner easy and confident. Well, maybe there'd be no trouble. Cautiously, Cal had resumed his seat at my side. "You looked damn' queer for a minute there—" he started.

His words scarcely registered. I was still eying Webb Jordan, wondering how I could get out of the saloon without being noticed.

"Senator Cyrus Whitlock, I believe," Jordan was saying.

And that was as far as he got.

There came the sudden explosive roar of a six-shooter, a sound I couldn't quite place for a moment. The dawning smile on the Senator's face vanished and was replaced by a look of alarm as he took one step forward. Jordan swerved violently to one side, then crashed to the floor and lay without movement. Black powdersmoke swirled through the room. There was just an instant's silence, then voices broke loose, excitedly asking who'd done the shooting. Everyone was talking at once. Sudden yells sounded outside, along the street.

Without thinking, I had leaped from my chair and knelt at Webb Jordan's side. He was sprawled partly on his side and I could see the dark spreading stain between his shoulder-blades. His eyes were closed.

I yelled to somebody to get water, whisky. A glass was thrust into my hand. I held Jordan's head on my lap trying to get a few drops between his lips. Momentarily, his eyes fluttered open, and he recognized me. "So I do—get to thank —you—" he began, then became unconscious.

I glanced up. Heads were crowded all around above me. Somebody said excitedly, "What did he say—?"

I ignored that and snapped the usual plea to get back and give the man air. "And for God's sake, send for a doctor—fast!"

"I already sent a man for Doc." It was Hub, the fat bartender speaking.

"What in hell's going on here?" a new voice cut in.

I glanced up. A tall, bearded, deputy-sheriff pushed in when the crowd moved back. Someone brought a folded blanket to place beneath Jordan's head. I didn't like Jordan's looks. All the color was drained from his face and his breath was coming with difficulty. I got slowly to my feet and faced the deputy.

"Some—somebody shot Webb Jordan," I stammered.

"Friend of yours," the deputy snapped.

"Sort of—I just met him once before, sometime back, and—"

"But who did it?" the deputy demanded impatiently.

A dozen voices tried to reply at once, but no one seemed to know. The deputy frowned with exasperation. I said, "Sounded to me like the shot come from near the doorway."

That raised another clamor. Various men had various ideas of the source of the shooting—all different.

Hub, the barkeep, cut in. "It come from beyond those swinging doors—" he commenced.

Then the Senator's voice, quiet and even, interrupted, and the rest of the room quieted. "If you'll allow me to speak a minute, Mr. Deputy, I believe I can clear up a few details. Deputy U.S. Marshal Jordan had just entered through the doorway—"

"Deputy U.S. Marshal Jordan?" the deputy cut in. "Is that who he is?— Oh, yeah, I didn't notice his badge right to first. Friend of yours, Senator?"

"We've met on a few occasions. That's neither here nor there. As I started to say, Jordan had just entered, when I saw this man"—
and he pointed to me
—"reach to his holster. Then Jordan spoke to me and an instant later came the shot."

I was stunned. "You claiming I shot Jordan?" I demanded, after a moment.

"What else can I believe?" the Senator said. "I saw you reach for your six-shooter—"

"That's no sign I shot him," I snapped angrily. "And how do you know I was reaching for my holster? My hand was below the table—"

"You admit that, eh?" the deputy scowled. "Lemme see that hawg-laig of yours."

He reached over and jerked my forty-four from its holster, without waiting for me to hand it to him, and thrust the end of one little finger into the gun barrel. The finger emerged powder-grimed. He examined the cylinder.

"Four loads and two empties," he announced. He shoved my gun into the waistband of his pants. "All right, explain, feller."

"I always carry my hammer on an empty shell—" I started.

"So do a lot of other fellers. Now how about that other empty?"

I was bewildered, couldn't think for a moment, then I remembered. "Oh, yes, on the way here today, I took a shot at a rattler—"

"Expect us to believe that?"

"—and I reckon I just forgot to reload."

"Naturally," the deputy said sarcastically. "Did you get the rattler?"

"No—missed him, complete."

"You're thinking fast, feller," the deputy said nastily. "Now we won't have to go out looking for a dead rattler to make an alibi for you. By the way, what's your name?"

"Willets, Joe Willets," I lied and on further questioning gave him the story I concocted to cover my presence in Deosso Springs.

The deputy nodded shortly. "I'll have to place you under arrest, Willets," the deputy said. "If you're smart, you'll come quiet—"

BOOK: Shoot Him On Sight
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