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Authors: Jon Sharpe

Tags: #Fiction, #Westerns, #General

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BOOK: Hangtown Hellcat
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Fargo led the Cheyenne over to the unstrung portion of wire still lying in the grass. He handed it to the leader of the braves and instructed the rest to place a hand on their leader’s arms.

“You will feel the lightning,” Fargo told them. “It will not hurt you. But just as there is living spirit in the motion of the wind, there is life in this hard sinew.”

“This is not possible, hair face,” the brave insisted. “My people will band with the Lakota and other tribes. Together—”

Fargo placed his hand on his hip as the brave kept talking.

“—we will topple all these…
aiii
!”

As one the six braves leaped like butt-shot dogs. The leader threw the wire down. “Like a snake it bit me!” he exclaimed. “I could feel the life in it. You spoke straight arrow. This spirit life leaped through all of us.”

Fargo nodded. “This is not the magic of those who live by night,” he said, meaning black magic. “It will not harm the red man so long as he respects it.”

Fargo said no more. This was a life force the Cheyenne could not fully understand, strong medicine indeed. Soon the word would spread across the West to many other tribes. Fargo predicted they would not touch these poles or wires even if they declared all-out war on the pale, hair-face invaders.

Before the Cheyenne rode out, Big Ed made them a gift of coffee beans, sugar, and the canned milk they had instantly taken a great fancy to.

“Good work, Fargo,” he praised. “They ain’t exactly swapping spit with us, but they’re not on the warpath, either. Say, you fellows look beat out.”

Creighton glanced over at the cook who had just fed the Indians. “Hiram, keep that Dutch oven hot and fry up a couple of the Sunday steaks.”

Fresh meat was scarce with both of the hunters gone for
the past two days. But the choice steaks for the Sunday meal were kept cool on ice packed between layers of sawdust in a specially insulated wagon.

While they waited for their food, Fargo and Buckshot drank coffee and filled Big Ed in on their encounter down south on the Great Divide Basin. The only details Fargo omitted were the beautiful minx in the bathtub and her pretty blond companion named Jasmine.

Big Ed listened carefully, picking his teeth with a sharpened twig.

“A hidden town full of criminals,” he said when Fargo fell silent. “Man alive! Sounds like you boys had quite a frolic down there. It’s too bad you can’t be sure you eliminated the three men who killed Danny, but it’s still good work. I’ll telegraph Fort Laramie.”

“It won’t do any good,” Fargo said. “Soldier blue has lost too many men called back to this War Between the States. There’s civilians at the fort they have to protect from Indian attacks.”

“It’s all we can do, Trailsman. That situation down south is none of our mix. It’s a chance you have to take once you leave the States.”

“Ed,” Fargo said patiently, “those hard tails cut down Danny in cold blood. Are you saying murder is small potatoes?”

“Of course not, Skye. I’m the one had to write to his widow. But you of all people know that life on the frontier is a roll of the dice. It sounds cruel to say it, but human life is cheaper out here than it is back in the land of steady habits.”

Fargo nodded. “That’s true for Danny. He was a grown man. But, Ed, there’s women and kids being held prisoner.”

Creighton scowled. “Hold on here. All that is beside the mark. Are you by any chance telling me you’re going back down there even if I say no?”

“’Fraid so.”

Creighton looked a question at Buckshot.

“Sorry, Big Ed. Mebbe I need my head examined, but I gotta string along with Fargo,” he said.

Creighton slowly shook his head as if shaking off a blow. “But I
need
my hunters and scouts. The men feel a lot safer
with you two around. Fargo, those writers always say your word is your bond.”

“Yeah, and part of the contract I signed says I’m to protect this crew and the telegraph line. Well, seems to me the biggest threat to it right now is that criminal bunch hiding in the gulch. And I don’t lie down on any job I’m hired for.”

Big Ed began to pace, his face agitated. “I’ve got eleven hundred miles of line to string by this fall. The newspapers ballyhoo the fact that me and Jim Gamble get a forty thousand dollar subsidy for ten years if we complete this line. But they never mention that we don’t get one dollar of that money until the line is finished and operating.”

“I know all that,” Fargo said. “I also know you plan to use that money to build a college out West, not to put on airs.”

“Do you also know that we’re already having trouble meeting payroll? Jim has the hardest stretch, but he’ll finish his four hundred and fifty miles because it’s mostly hot desert. But if my crew gets bogged down in winter out here, there goes the whole project right down a rat hole. I
need
you two up here.”

“Hell, it ain’t like we’re quitting,” Fargo said. “Far as meat, you’ve got men who can drop small game—there’s rabbits, wild turkeys, and such aplenty in this country. Far as scouting, you and Charlie know the route. The only other possible danger is Indians, and there’s no sign they’re greasing for war.”

“What,” Big Ed demanded, “could the two of you hope to accomplish against a town full of criminals?”

“I’m still cogitating on that,” Fargo admitted.

“Fargo, you and Buckshot are not the law. I’m the boss here, and I’m holding you to the terms of your contracts.”

“Way I see it, I’m meeting those terms,” Fargo insisted. “This bunch won’t stop sabotaging the line. Sure, you’ll soon have repair crews. But they can’t be everywhere at once, and what good’s a telegraph that don’t work half the time?”

Creighton’s jaw muscles knotted. “Like I said, I’m the boss. If you two ride out against my orders, don’t bother coming back.”

He stalked off.

“Ain’t
he
in a pet?” Buckshot said. “I never figured Big Ed for the kind who’d turn his back on the murder of his own men.”

“He’s got more starch in his collar than you credit him with. Maybe he’ll cool off and see it our way. Well, let’s stoke our bellies and grab some shut-eye. Our horses need a full day’s rest, so we’ll set out at sunrise after we stock up on ammo.”

Buckshot nodded absently, his mind on something else. “I just don’t unnerstan’, Skye, what the
hell
she was doing with them pearls.”

Fargo gave a weary grin. “I do, old warhorse. I do.”

*   *   *

While the two men slept, the telegraph line advanced several miles. The sound of a horse approaching woke Fargo up, his Colt to hand even before he’d blinked away the cobwebs of sleep.

“The hell’s this?” Big Ed greeted him with a broad smile. “First you rebel on me, now you’re gonna shoot me?”

Fargo grinned as he leathered his shooter and rose to his feet, kicking Buckshot awake. “Stir your stumps, mooncalf! What’s on the spit, Ed?”

“Tack up and come join the rest of us for supper,” Creighton said. “It’s almost sundown.”

As the two men prepared to ride, Creighton took in a deep breath. “Fargo, have you ever heard of this fellow Thoreau?”

“Seen the name here and there,” Fargo replied. “Went to the hoosegow for not paying his taxes, didn’t he?”

“Ah, that was just for show—he knew his friends would pay it for him. But he’s a fine writer and rates aces high with me. He wrote this one line that reminds me of you: ‘A man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one.’ You’re right about riding south, Skye. You wouldn’t be the Trailsman if you didn’t.”

“Yeah,” Buckshot muttered in a whisper, “but you didn’t tell him about the little hussy in that bathtub.”

As the trio followed the newly strung line west, Ed said, “Fargo, I still think it’s plumb loco for just the two of you to take on so many. My workers have enough sand to stick it
out even if a few volunteers go with you. A few of these men have been soldiers or fought Indians.”

“Thanks, Ed, but me and Buckshot found out yesterday what will happen to men without excellent horseflesh. Besides, this deal will have to be done by wit and wile, not frontal assault. It’ll be easier for two men to move around and conceal.”

“Well, I say let a man go the gait he chooses—especially when he’s the expert in these matters.”

“You just keep pushing west,” Fargo said. “If me and Buckshot play this right, we won’t be long in returning. I know money is a big problem for you, so just keep setting those poles.”

“Ahh, like my wife is fond of telling me—it’s a long lane that has no turning. Money be hanged! I’ve got Horace Greeley and his
New York Tribune
in my camp.”

“If he
was
in your camp,” Fargo quipped, “he’d be picking weevils out of his hardtack instead of eating oysters and ice cream at Delmonico’s.”

After supper the men broke off into their usual groups to play poker, checkers, and dominoes.

“I wunner where Shoo Fly is,” Buckshot remarked. “Usually he’s playing his banjo ’long about now.”

Fargo and Buckshot discussed possible tactics for freeing the prisoners in that gulch. After a long silence Fargo said speculatively, “First we need to find out who the linchpin is. All criminal gangs depend on the one man who can control the group. And we need to separate the grain from the chaff. Besides the prisoners, there might be somebody in that hellhole willing to help us.”

“Huh! You know me,” Buckshot said. “I say we just free them prisoners and then burn that whole rat’s nest down.”

“I’m not asking for advice, jughead. Just thinking out loud. Still, maybe that’s not such a bad idea. But like I said—there could be other innocents besides the ones locked up. The beauty in the tub, now she acted high and mighty. Maybe she
is
the linchpin. But the gal named Jasmine was taking orders. There could be more like her.”

Buckshot started to reply when, abruptly, Fargo recognized
the Ovaro’s trouble whicker coming from the rope corral. This was followed almost instantly by a shriek of pain. Fargo and Buckshot were the first to reach the corral followed by the rest of the men.

“Katy Christ,” Buckshot said. “The hell you up to, Shoo Fly? You all right?”

Shoo Fly Jones lay doubled up in the grass clutching his crotch. A clear full moon showed his face twisted in pain.

“Fargo’s horse…kicked me…in the nuts,” he managed between hissing breaths.

“What in blazes were you doing behind his horse?” Big Ed demanded.

“And what’s that knife for?” Fargo added, seeing it lying in the grass near Shoo Fly’s hand. “Don’t tell me you were trying to geld him?”

Looking sheepish, still grimacing, Shoo Fly managed to sit up. “I wasn’t doing him no harm, Fargo, honest Injun. I was just trying to cut some hair from his tail.”

“The hell for?”

“Ahh, you know…I wanted to weave it into little souvenir rings to sell to the men. I got some once from William Campbell’s horse—you know, the famous Pony Express rider? Each ring fetched me a dollar.”

Fargo, grinning and shaking his head, helped Shoo Fly to his feet. Buckshot joined the rest of them in a howl of mirth. “You tarnal fool! That’s an uncut stallion, you ignut popinjay! You’re lucky Fargo’s Ovaro didn’t cave your thick skull in.”

Shoo Fly winced. “I’ll be
lucky
if I ever sire a whelp. B’lieve me, I’m cured of the souvenir trade.”

The rest of the men went back to their campfires, still roweling Shoo Fly, but Fargo and Buckshot lingered near the corral.

“Fargo, I ain’t sleepy,” Buckshot said. “You think our horses are rested up enough? They been grained good.”

“I’m thinking the same thing you are—let’s ride out tonight.”

“Where we gonna start lookin’ for this linchpin of yours?”

Fargo chuckled. “Where else? That limestone house. No use kidding each other—it’s watching that little beauty and
her pearls that has both of us in such a jo-fired hurry to get back.”

“Yep,” Buckshot admitted as they headed back to the camp circle to retrieve their saddles and weapons. “But there’s a damn good chance we’re playing the cobra to her mongoose.”

8

Circling wide of the criminal nest in the gulch, Fargo and Buckshot arrived by midday at the same well-protected draw where they’d left their horses the night before last. They ate a meal of cold biscuits smeared with bacon grease, then slept until sundown.

BOOK: Hangtown Hellcat
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