Frank Morgan reined up and called out to the lone figure sitting by the tiny campfire. “I'm friendly! You want some company?”
“Shore. Come on in and pull up a piece of ground and take a load off.”
Frank walked Stormy, his big Appaloosa, into the clearing and swung down from the saddle. “That coffee sure smells good.”
“Come on over and have a taste,” the man said. “I got plenty.”
Frank dug his cup from the packsaddle of his packhorse and poured a cup of the hot brew, squatting down by the fire. “Fire feels good too,” he said. “It's turned chilly.”
“For a fact,” the man replied, his eyes narrowing suspiciously as he looked at Frank.
Frank wondered about that, but said nothing.
The man, a miner from the look of his clothing and lace-up boots, inched a bit closer to his shotgun.
“Finding any color around here?” Frank asked.
“Enough to get by.” He looked hard at Frank for a few seconds. “Why, you figurin' on robbin' me?”
Frank returned the hard look. “Don't be stupid!” he snapped back at the man. “I'm no thief.”
“Since when?” the miner came back at him.
Frank set his cup on the ground. “What the hell are you talking about?”
The miner moved a hand toward his shotgun. Frank leaned over the hat-sized fire and grabbed the scattergun.
“I knowed it!” the miner said. “You're gonna kill me, ain't you, Val?”
“Who the hell is Val?” Frank asked, breaking open the double barrel and tossing the shells to one side.
The miner blinked a couple of times. “You is.”
Frank sighed and picked up his cup, taking a swig of the strong brew. Tasted good. “My name is Frank, not Val.”
“Says you! I know who you is. You're Val Dooley.”
Frank laid the scattergun to one side. “Friend . . . I never heard of anyone called Val Dooley. And personally, I don't give a tinker's damn if you believe that or not.”
“Then he's your twin brother!”
“Nope. I don't have a twin brother.” Frank took another gulp of coffee and held out the cup. “Fill it up, friend. That's good coffee.”
The miner carefully picked up the battered old pot and filled Frank's cup, then his own cup. “Might as well have me one too. Be my last cup on earth. I ain't scared to die, Val.”
“Damnit, man, I am not this Val person!”
The miner stared at Frank. “Shore look like him.”
“Oh, hell, forget it,” Frank said, disgust evident in his voice. “How far to the nearest town? I need supplies.”
“ 'Bout twenty miles southwest. But you'll get a rope if you go there, Mr. Whoever-in-the Hell-You-Is.”
“Val Dooley is wanted dead or alive, and you is the spittin' image of Val.”
“If this Dooley person is so famous, how come I never heard of him?”
“He ain't been outlawin' long. But in the few months he's been rampagin', he's been a rapin' and a-killin' and a-stealin' to beat the band. And that ain't all he's been doin'.”
Frank waited, then asked, “Well . . . what else has he been doing?”
“Liftin' the dress tails of a lot of good women. You're
... I mean,
a mighty handsome man, you isâah, he is. Women get all flighty and stupid around you . . .
You right shore you ain't Val Dooley?“
“I guess you ain't. But if you want some good advice, you'll get back on your horse and head east. Get the hell out of this part of California. 'Cause if you stick around here, you gonna be a shore-'nuff dead man.”
“Mister, look hard at me. Think of a gunfighter. A very well-known gunfighter. Now, who am I?”
“Val Dooley. I done told you that 'bout a dozen damn times.”
Frank shook his head. “I've got to get to the bottom of this.” He drank the rest of his coffee and stood up. “I think I'll head for this town. What's the name of it?”
“Deweyville. The sheriff there is damn mean too. Name's Carl Davis. But you're a damn fool if you don't hightail it out of this state, Mr. Whoever-You-Are.”
“I've been called a lot worse than a damn fool. Thanks for the coffee. Hey, how far's the road that'll take me to Deweyville?”
“Couple of miles.” He jerked a thumb. “That way.”
“Old coot,” Frank muttered as he rode away from the miner. “Surely he's not right in the head.”
He made camp with about an hour of daylight still left. He hobbled the horses so they could graze, and then fixed food for himself and Dog. While his bacon was sizzling in the pan and his bread baking in the small Dutch oven, he looked over at Dog and said, “If I tell you to get, boy, you get, you hear me?”
Dog looked at him and cocked his head to one side.
“That old rummy back there might have been about half right, and I don't want you to get shot. So if I tell you to get, you run.”
“I'll take that as a yes. You just do as I tell you.”
Dog walked closer and licked Frank's hand.
“All right. Good boy.”
After his meal, Frank sat by the fire, smoking and drinking coffee and thinking. “Maybe I'll get lucky this time, Dog. Maybe I can find me a little place where folks don't know me and I can buy me a little spread and we can stop this eternal wandering. Would you like that?”
Dog looked at him, unblinking.
Frank laughed. “It doesn't make a damn to you, does it, boy?”
Dog again cocked his head to one side.
Frank patted the animal's big head. “Well, I like to dream about having a place where I can settle down and live in peace. But I know it's just a dream.”
Frank Morgan was a gunfighter, but it was a profession he did not choose. When he was in his mid-teens, working on a ranch in Texas, a bully pushed him into a gunfight. It was a fight the boy did not want. But the bully died from the bullet Frank fired into his chest. Frank drifted for a few months, then joined the Confederate army, and at war's end, he was a captain of Rebel cavalry. He headed back west, looking for work; that was when the brothers of the bully who had forced him into a fight caught up with Frank. One by one, they stalked him, forcing him into gunfights. Frank killed them all. His reputation spread.
Frank Morgan was just a shade over six feet tall. He was broad-shouldered and lean-hipped. His hair was dark brown, lightly peppered with gray. His eyes were a pale gray. Women considered him a very handsome man.
He wore a .45 Colt Peacemaker on his right side, low and tied down.
Frank had married once, right after the end of the War of Northern Aggression. That marriage produced a son; a son that Frank knew nothing about for many years. The woman's father had forced Frank to leave, and had had the marriage annulled, not knowing his daughter was with child. The woman, Vivian, had gone back East, married well, and built a new life for herself, becoming very wealthy. Vivian and Frank reunited briefly, Frank learning then he had a grown son. After Vivian's tragic and untimely death, Frank learned she had willed him a portion of her estate, making Frank a moderately wealthy man. But the son never really warmed to his father, and the two went their separate ways, seeing each other only occasionally.
Frank drifted aimlessly, looking for a quiet place where he could build a home and hang up his guns forever. But that was something he knew in his heart he would probably never find.
Frank had earned the nickname the Drifter. He was both feared and hated by many, idolized by some. There had been many newspaper articles written about himâmost of them untrueâand a number of books, penny dreadfuls, published, supposedly chronicling his life. There was a stage play touring the country, a play about his exploits . . . most of those exploits pure fiction. Frank had had people who knew him tell him the production was awful.
Frank drifted, trying unsuccessfully to escape his reputation. And now he was in Northern California and had been told he looked just like a local desperado named Val Dooley.
“I'll get this straightened out and be on my way,” Frank muttered. “The last thing I want is a bunch of locals taking potshots at me.”
* * *
At midmorning, Frank rode slowly into the town of Deweyville. People began coming out of stores to line the boardwalks on both sides of the street, to stand silently and stare at him. Frank cut his eyes to Dog, padding along beside his horse. The big cur seemed tense, his ears laid back.
“Steady now, Dog,” Frank whispered.
“You got your nerve, Val!” a woman called from the boardwalk.
“Somebody shoot that murderer!” a man yelled.
“Get him!” a man hollered. “Don't let him get away!”
Crowds from both sides of the street rushed toward Frank, yelling and calling him all sorts of names.
“Go, Dog!” Frank yelled. “Go!”
Dog took off running just as Frank put the spurs to Stormy. The big Ap leaped forward, the packhorse trailing at a run.
A local grabbed Frank's leg and tried to pull him from the saddle. Frank kicked the man off. Another tried to grab him from the other side and missed, falling beneath Stormy's hooves. The citizen yelled in pain and rolled away.
“What the hell's the matter with you people?” Frank yelled as dozens of hands attempted to drag him from the saddle.
There was no answer from the wild-eyed crowd as several men torn the reins from Frank's hands and brought Stormy to a halt. Dog was nowhere to be seen. He had ducked into an alley and disappeared.
Frank was dragged from the saddle and thrown to the ground.
“Somebody get a rope!” a man yelled.
“Yeah!” another hollered. “Hang the murdering scum!”
A pistol boomed and the crowd suddenly fell silent. “That's it!” a man yelled. “I won't tolerate any lynch mob. Back off, all of you. Now, damnit. Get your hands off that man and stand away. Move!”
“But it's Val Dooley, Sheriff Davis!” a woman protested.
“I don't care if it's Satan himself!” the sheriff said, pushing his way through the crowd. “He gets a trial.” He looked down at Frank. “Get up slow, Dooley. And keep your hand away from your gun.”
“I'm not Val Dooley!” Frank said, getting to his feet. “My name is Frank Morgan.”
“Bull!” Sheriff Davis said.
“Frank Morgan?” a women yelled. “The famous gunfighter? In a pig's eye you are. You're Val Dooley and now we've got you!”
“And now we get to see you hang, you murdering scum!” another woman yelled.
“You're goin' to have to do better than that, Val,” Sheriff Davis said. Then he chuckled. “Frank Morgan? That's a good one, Val. You must not have heard the news.”
“What news?” Frank asked.
“Frank Morgan's dead,” the sheriff said. “He was killed last week in a gunfight over in Montana.”
“Yeah,” a deputy said. “It come over the telegraph wires just hours after it happened. It's true. Move, Val. You got a date with the hangman.”