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Authors: Jon Sharpe

Tags: #Fiction, #Westerns, #General

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BOOK: Hangtown Hellcat
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“You’re all stout lads,” Creighton replied, “but nix on the posse. Most of you have fired nothing but squirrel guns, and ’sides that, we’ve got no horses but dray nags. Fargo and Buckshot will settle accounts with these murderers, whoever the hell they are. We have an important job to do here, and as soon as we bury Danny we’re getting back to it.”

Creighton and his college-graduate secretary, Charles Brown, insisted on digging the grave themselves. After the brief, simple ceremony, gunpowder was burned over the grave to keep predators away. Work resumed and Fargo and Buckshot prepared their mounts for a possibly long, hard ride while discussing this new source of trouble.

“We riding out at sunrise?” Buckshot asked.

Fargo nodded. “That’ll give them time to decide nobody followed them. And to get bored with waiting, happens they mean to ambush us.”

“I hope we ain’t up against one a them criminal armies like the Pukes and Jayhawkers raising hell back in Kansas and Missouri,” Buckshot observed. “Big Ed is right about the workers being stout lads. But they’ll dump the blanket in a big shooting fray.”

Fargo, busy removing the Ovaro’s horseshoes with a shoeing hammer, shook his head at this notion of an outlaw
army. “Could be a bigger bunch somewhere, but don’t seem likely to me. Those border ruffians back east live by raiding on settlements and robbing banks. If this bunch had enough men, they’d’ve raided us by now for our supplies.”

Fargo rasped the stallion’s hooves smooth, then trimmed them and nailed the shoes back on. Bad shoeing lamed more horses than any other cause. The smallest crack could work its way up from the hoof into the coronet, stranding man and animal. In country like this, that was a death warrant.

It didn’t take Buckshot Brady long to warm to his favorite theme.

“Two bachelors of the saddle, Skye, that’s us, lookin’ to get our clocks wound by some willing strumpets. Way I kallate it, chumley, there ain’t no more cathouses on this route. No settlement until we hit the end of trail at Camp Floyd, and that’s Mormon country. Old Brigham’s got him nineteen wives, but can horny bucks like me and you get even a sniff of cunny? Hell ’n’ furies! I’m starting to look for knotholes in them telegraph poles.”

“Why’n’t you put a stopper on your gob?” Fargo snapped. “I don’t need reminding we’re in woman-scarce country.”

“Skye Fargo going without poon,” Buckshot roweled him mercilessly. “No wunner you been in such a scratchy mood. That’s like a limey goin’ without tea.”

“You’re a reg’lar caution to screech owls,” Fargo retorted, his tone sarcastic.

Fargo checked the Ovaro for saddle galls, wiped the sweat from him with an old feed sack, then took a metal currycomb to him.

“That stallion is a huckleberry above a persimmon,” Buckshot admired, studying the Ovaro. “Strong as a sheep man’s socks. And smart? Well, I reckon! Yestiddy I seen him open the tailgate of the fodder wagon all by hisself.”

Fargo pointed his chin toward the grulla. “Say, that little blue Indian cayuse of yours is some pumpkins, too. He’ll stop on a two-bit piece and give you fifteen cents in change.”

“He’ll do to take along,” Buckskin allowed. “I slit his nostrils for exter wind. Me, I prefer a mule in hard country. They’ll gallop from hell to breakfast and back. Sure-footed, and they don’t require tending like a horse. And if you’re
starving, mule meat is tastier. But a mule just ain’t good company, and they ain’t loyal like a good horse.”

Buckshot spoke all this absently while he carefully inspected the smoky’s feet. Now he said what was really on his mind. “Fargo, all three of them motherless cockchafers that opened up on us had repeating rifles. Sound like Spencer carbines to you?”

Fargo nodded. “I see you and me have hitched our thoughts to the same rail. You’re thinking about all those snowbirds who deserted out of Fort Laramie and just disappeared?”

“The way you say. Signed up in the winter to get three hots and a cot without having to fight the red aborigines. Then, with the first spring thaw, they lit out to the west takin’ their carbines and a shitload of ammo. Think this bunch today could be some of them yellow curs?”

“Distinct possibility,” Fargo said. “That would explain the crime spree in this region. If that’s the way of it, you might be right—there could be more than three of these sage rats. But I’ve scouted this entire area, and I just don’t see any place where they could be holed up. No signs of old camps, either.”

As if by tacit accord, both men gazed toward the freshly blackened earth that marked Danny Appling’s grave.

“Man had him a wife and two pups on the rug,” Buckshot mused aloud. “Sent his pay home reg’lar like. How will they get by now that he’s been pegged out? The killing don’t set right with me, Skye.”

“We can’t let it stand,” Fargo agreed. “Come hell or high water, we can’t let it stand.”

*   *   *

At sundown Big Ed Creighton whistled the workday over. Several big campfires were built and decks of cards produced—poker, checkers, dominoes, and arm wrestling were the most popular pastimes during the few hours before the weary crews turned in for the night.

For a few of the men, however, work was just beginning. Cooks fired up their Dutch ovens to make hundreds of biscuits for breakfast, and wranglers tended to the dray horses. One man was even in charge of making soap, rendering lard with
buffalo fat and lye. Once it hardened it was sliced into chips. It had to be rinsed off quickly or it would peel a man’s skin.

Several whiskey barrels had been sawed in two to produce washtubs, for use when water was plentiful—which it hadn’t been lately. Fargo eyed the wagon in which the washtubs were now uselessly stacked. Everybody was getting a mite whiffy, himself included.

The sound of drumming hooves approaching in the grainy twilight made Fargo and Buckshot snatch up their weapons. But a horn sounded loudly and all the men cheered. It was only a Pony Express rider thundering past.

“The brave lad on that horse will be out of a job when this line is finished,” remarked Creighton in a regretful tone. He, Charles Brown, Fargo, and Buckshot were playing joker poker in the sawing yellow-orange flames of a campfire.

“Just as well,” Fargo replied. “The Pony’s losing money hand over fist. Five dollars to send a letter is bad enough. But I worked for one of the partners, Alexander Majors, and he told me the firm is losing twice that on every letter.”

“Speaking of your former employers,” spoke up Charles Brown as he frowned at his cards, “I read in
Police Gazette
a while back that Allan Pinkerton has joined the war as a spy for the Union side. Are you planning to enlist, Mr. Fargo?”

Brown was an earnest young man in his twenties who had been reading law in Omaha when Creighton hired him. He was also a devotee of half-dimers and “Wild West” magazines and, thus, in awe of the Trailsman. His formal, proper manner amused Fargo. But although there was plenty of green on his antlers, he was hard-working and eager to hone his frontier skills.

“Nope,” Fargo replied. “I don’t go in for slavery, but you have to take an oath to join the army. I won’t swear an oath to any man or country. That just makes
me
into a slave.”

Buckshot was trying to peek at Fargo’s cards. Now he chuckled. “Fargo, you are the world-beatingest hombre I ever knew. You surely do measure corn by your own bushel. That’s why I like you.”

Fargo snorted. “Does this mean I’m spoken for?”

Big Ed and Brown hooted. Buckshot gave Fargo a mean squint. “I take it you’re tired of eating solid food?”

“No looking at the deadwood,” Fargo snapped when Buckshot reached for the discards pile.

The game progressed, bets limited to nickels and dimes. A talented banjo player named Shoo Fly Jones was picking out “Skip to My Lou” while some of the men sang along.

“Where you headed when this job’s over?” Creighton asked Fargo. “I can get you a good job with Western Union—something more permanent than contract work.”

“Nothing permanent for me, thanks,” Fargo replied. “I like contract jobs just fine. I’m like Buckshot—we both got jackrabbits in our socks.”

“They call you a rootless man, Mr. Fargo,” young Brown piped up, “but that’s sheep dip. You’re anchored to the entire American West. There’s no Vanderbilt mansion bigger or more magnificent than your home.”

Fargo’s lips twitched into a grin at the kid’s enthusiasm. He talked like a book sometimes, but wasn’t that the mark of a college man? “Well, Charlie, looking at it that way…”

“Sure,” Creighton pitched in, his tone sly, “and Fargo’s got more bedrooms in his home.”

“Not lately,” Fargo complained. “This job pays pretty good, but it does leave a man woman starved.”

Fargo kept an eye on the Ovaro, ground-tethered nearby. Although perimeter guards had been posted, Fargo had more faith in his stallion—the best sentry he had ever known. If there were enough army deserters roaming these parts, a night attack in force was not out of the question.

Charles Brown tilted back his head to gaze into a dark velvet sky shimmering with countless stars. “Mr. Fargo, do you believe in an All-wise Providence?”

Fargo shrugged one shoulder. “I wasn’t Bible-raised, Charlie. Truth to tell, I’m a pagan. But I do wonder now and then how everything got here. If this Providence you mention is so ‘All-wise,’ how’s come there’s so damn many fools in the world?”

Big Ed chuckled. “Bully for you, Fargo. My wife is pious and a fine woman. But I keep asking her—why is it that human beings invent gods by the dozens, yet we can’t even create one worm? Still…like Charlie here, I look at that night sky and I have to wonder.”

Buckshot lifted his left leg and cut a loud fart. “There’s a kiss for alla you cracker barrel philosophers. All
I
wunner is if my next sporting gal will give me the French pox and force me to the mercury cure.
That
sumbitch burns, chappies.”

This remark make Buckshot sigh in fond reminiscence. “Skye, that hoor I had back in Omaha, the one with the big wart on her nose? She was coyote ugly and smelled like a bear’s cave. But by God, she was
willing
. Why, she—”

“Sew up your lips.” Fargo cut him off. It had been many long, suffering weeks since Fargo had even seen a woman, and Buckshot’s constant harping on the subject only made the deprivation worse.

Shoo Fly Jones laid his banjo aside and stood up. “Boys,” he announced loudly, “I sniff water close by.”

This remark occasioned a great stirring and to-do throughout the camp. Shoo Fly had earned a reputation as a “water witch,” and it fascinated the men to watch him in action. While he retrieved his pronged willow branch, several of the men quickly made torches from small limbs tipped with rags soaked in coal oil.

Buckshot dug an anticipatory elbow into Fargo’s ribs. He and Creighton were the only ones who had guessed about the secret arrangement between Fargo and Shoo Fly.

Shoo Fly began to wander in slow circles around the main camp, his homely, careworn face tight with concentration as he “witched,” holding the willow branch out in front of him. The excited men kept hushing each other up so that Shoo Fly could concentrate.

Suddenly the end of the stick dove toward the ground.

“Dig here, boys,” he called out. “You’ll find good water.”

Several of the men had brought shovels. In a matter of minutes one of them shouted, “Huzzah! He’s done ’er again, boys! Break out the bathtubs!”

A cheer swept through the men.

“Skye,” Creighton said quietly as he tamped tobacco into his pipe, “I want to thank you again. These men are awfully bored, and this is great entertainment for them.”

“Thank my horse,” Fargo replied.

Earlier that day the Ovaro’s sensitive nose had located this underground spring. Fargo and Shoo Fly had cooked up
this scheme back in the Nebraska Panhandle and worked it several times since then. Fargo enjoyed the ruse as much as the rest of the men.

While some of the men filled water casks, Fargo and Buckshot took a good squint around the outskirts of camp, checking with all the guards.

“We best knock up some grub for the trail,” Fargo remarked as both men gazed south across the moon-bleached landscape. “I want to ride out before full light.”

“You seen the notched trees in this area?” Buckshot asked.

“What, you think I’m as green as Charlie? How could I miss ’em?”

“I can’t break their code,” Buckshot said. “But it’s Northern Cheyennes sending messages to their Sioux battle cousins. Messages about the paleface invaders crossing their ranges.”

“They know every damn thing we’re up to,” Fargo agreed. “And they’ll be watching me and you when we ride out.”

“Paleface killers ahead of us and pissed-off savages on our back trail,” Buckshot said. “
Thank
you, Jesus, for another glorious day siding Skye Fargo!”

3
BOOK: Hangtown Hellcat
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