Johnny and Coot advanced their horses at a walk.
The strangers were little more than a stone's throw away. They looked likeâwereâhardcases. Some were recognizable. Troy Madison and Kinney Scopes were part of the Hog Ranch crowd, an important part. Troy was the outfit's resident fast gun and Kinney was a versatile, devious crook-of-all-trades. All lawless trades, that is.
Also present was Buck Thornton, a sometime scout for wagon trains passing through Hangtree. Apparently the wagon trains had passed through, but Buck remained.
The other two were strangers to Johnny. One was a youngster who looked barely out of his mid-teens, if that. He had a mop of sandy hair, round blue eyes, a snub nose, and a shiny-smooth pink face. Draped on his undersized frame, the big-caliber gun in his hip holster looked like an oversized horse pistol, almost too big for his neat small hands.
The other man had a lion's mane of unkempt wiry iron-gray hair and long narrow eyes. His weather-beaten face was a mass of wrinkles where it wasn't covered by a long straggly salt-and-pepper beard.
“Psst! That baby-faced kid is Brat Sisely,” Coot said in a stage whisper only Johnny could hear. “Don't let his looks fool you. He's lightning fastâkilled twelve men in gunfights that I know of. Take him first. I'll take Troy.”
“Uh-huh,” Johnny murmured, letting the oldster know he'd gotten the message.
“Howdy, boys,” Kinney Scopes said, smirking. He'd just commenced the endgame whether he knew it or not. A tough, rowdy loudmouth, he wore a battered high-crowned hat, tufts of hair sticking out the sides over a jowly face whose receding chin sprouted a mass of billy goat whiskers.
“This here's Johnny Cross, a big man in these parts and fast with a gun,” Scopes announced to his partners. It was his way of alerting those who didn't know who Johnny Cross was that he could shoot.
“Never heard of him,” Sisely piped up in a high-pitched boyish voice.
“You should have,” Madison said, looking a bit sullen around eyes and mouth. “He ain't no greenhorn.”
“And I am?” Sisely challenged. Something in his voice, some note or tone evocative of a whiny, smart-alecky kid sassing off raised the hackles of every grown man within hearing distance.
“Don't take offense where none is offered, boy,” Madison said, his sullenness increasing. It was clear there was no love lost between him and the youngster.
“Don't tell me what to do!” Sisely shrilled, bridling. “And don't call me
, I don't like it!”
“Now, now lad. Don't go picking fights with your friends,” soothed the prune-faced man with the lion's mane of hair and wild beard.
“I don't want none of your advice, Titus Gow. You ain't my pa!” Sisley retorted.
“It's good advice. Pretty soon you won't have no friends left to pick fights with,” Gow said with seeming good cheer. “'Specially not with that quick trigger finger of yours,” he added with a laugh.
“Dog my cats if it ain't Buck Thornton,” Coot said conversationally across the narrow gap between him and Johnny and the oncoming riders. When they were facing each other, he went on as if merely passing the time of day. “Hardly expected to see you in these parts, Buck.” In reality, so much more than that was going on beneath the surface of the chance encounter. The undercurrents were running deep.
Buck Thornton wore a fringed buckskin jacket and a flat-crowned hat with a snakeskin hatband. His six-gun was worn in a soft, rawhide, Mexican-style bus-cadero holster rig.
“Last I seed of you, Buck, you was scouting for Major Adams and a wagon train of pilgrims headed for Califor-nye-ay.”
“The major and I came to a parting of the ways, Coot,” Thornton said easily.
“Haw!” Scopes's laughter was explosive, raw, and taunting, provoking a glare from Buck Thornton. “Major Adams fired his ass off the wagon train after ol' Buck got somebody's unmarried daughter in the family way!”
“Shut up, Scopes,” Thornton said tightly, his face coloring red from the neck up.
Scopes's broad grin radiated undimmed.
“Nothing to be ashamed of, Buck. You was just doing what comes natural.” Gow made a show of looking around at his fellows. “Ain't a one of us here that ain't made a slip one time or another.”
“I'll say!” Scopes said, laughing his loud jackass bray.
“And done worse than getting some pore little Sunbonnet Sue with a child,” Gow added.
“Ain't that the truth!” Scopes chimed in.
Madison kept aloof from the horseplay, remaining serious and unsmiling. He was watching Johnny's hands and eyes. Watching closely.
Resting folded hands on top of the saddle horn, Gow leaned forward, eyes nearly swallowed up in a nest of wrinkled creases as he squinted at Coot, studying him. “I know you,” he said with the preoccupied air of one struggling to recall a memory. “I know you from someplace. Wish I could recollect where . . . Well, it'll come to me.”
“Everybody knows Coot Dooley. He's been around forever and he's older than the hills,” Scopes said. “Older than the dust on Moses's sandals!”
Coot didn't bat an eye. “You said it, not me, but I'll second the motion.” To Gow he said, “You might remember me from a long time ago, a long long time ago. I was at Fort Tanner when the McKie rescue party came in.”
Gow never lost his smile, showing a mouthful of the blackened stumps of rotten teeth.
“Then again you might not recall me. You was in mighty sad shape when they brung you in,” Coot went on. “Being snowed in at that mining camp in the mountains all winter with no food and just them seven other miners must have been mighty rough.”
“It surely was,” Gow said, eyes getting a fixed faraway look. “Surely was.” If there had been a risk of him losing his composure, it was gone. The moment had passed.
“You was the onliest one to survive, as I recollect,” Coot said. “Mighty lucky!”
Gow nodded. “I'm a lucky fellow. Reckon I've always been lucky that way.”
“Not today,” Coot said with a ring of finality. That dropped a heavy stone into the pond, ripples spreading outward.
“We gonna stand here jawing all morning?” Sisely demanded, breaking the stillness.
“That's youngsters for you, al'us in a hurry to git somewhere,” Gow said, chuckling. “They don't appreciate the satisfaction a man takes in talking over old times.”
“Kind of a surprise running into you out here, Johnny,” Scopes said. “Off your home range, ain't ya?”
“You know what they say about the early bird catching the worm,” Johnny pointed out.
Gow laughed. “They do say that! The question is, who's the bird and who's the worm?”
“You know how you can find out,” Johnny said. Mindful of Coot's warning, he threw down first on Brat Sisely.
fast. Johnny moved first, but Sisely's gun cleared the holster before his did. That big, oversized horse pistol was clutched in both hands at the same time and began firing away. Overanxious, his opening shots missed, the rounds thrumming so close by that Johnny felt the wind of their passage.
The kid missed his target, but Johnny didn't. The Colt in his right fist put two in Sisely's middle, blowing him out of the saddle.
As Johnny and Sisley traded shots, Coot dug his boot heels sharp into the pinto's flanks, hauling back hard on the reins at the same time.
Nickering in protest at the unaccustomed hard use, the pinto upreared, rising on its hind legs, forelegs off the ground. Coot held himself in the saddle by the viselike grip of his long, bowed thighs.
The draw between Johnny and Sisely gave Madison a lightning-like but very real jolt, throwing him off a hair by its surprise. He'd expected to be Johnny's prime target.
Madison drew without thinking, snaking his gun out of the holster. Johnny was still his intended target, but Coot's horse going up on its hind legs and rising to a height of eight feet and more blocked his line of fire. He balked for an instant in the deadly contest where life and death were measured in instants and split seconds.
Madison had no clear shot at Coot, either, shielded by the horse's bulk as he was. To the outlaw's way of thinking shooting a horse was a waste of bullets, especially in a gunfight, so Madison was temporarily put in check for a critical interval during the moment of truth.
Coot was not. Using his right hand, he shucked his short-barreled carbine out of the saddle scabbard. The reins were wrapped around his left hand and wrist.
Coot leaned forward and down along the right-hand side of the pinto's magnificently muscled neck to shield himself behind the body of his horse, clutching the saddle horn for support with his left hand. It was a classic maneuver of the kind used by mounted Comanche warriors. He thrust the carbine under the horse's head and around its massive neck. Not making a fuss about aiming, he simply pointed the weapon at its targetâTroy Madison.
Wielding the piece one-handedly, Coot squeezed off a shot, the carbine barking.
A black dot blossomed in the middle of Madison's forehead where the round drilled it neatly. He died instantly, like a frog pierced through the brain by a hatpin. Blood so dark it seemed almost black jetted from the bullet hole.
Madison flew backward off his saddle and horse so violently and abruptly it was as if he'd been lassoed by an invisible rope and yanked to the ground.
Of the five Hog Ranch riders, only two were gunfightersâTroy Madison and Brat Sisely. They were both stone dead before the others went for their guns.
The other three were gunmen, killers, but not gunfighters. They lacked the keen eye and razor-sharp instincts of the professional gun. The veteran scout and sometime Indian fighter Buck Thornton was quickest of them, his six-gun leaping into his hand and swinging toward Johnny Cross. He glimpsed the gun in Johnny's hand pointing at him.
Gunfire flared from Johnny's Colt, three quick rounds tearing Buck's chest to pieces.
Buck jerked and twisted in the saddle under the impact. The gun in his hand suddenly felt like it was a million miles away. Unfired, it dropped from his nerveless fingers. He didn't care. He was beyond caring. He pitched out of the saddle and a black abyss opened to swallow him up.
He knew it was the blackness of death and then he ceased to know anything.
Titus Gow had a gun in each hand, and he was shooting at Coot. Shouting, and roaring, his voice seemed louder than the gunfire. If it was words, they were in a language no mortal man could understand, an unintelligible primal shriek.
The pinto's forelegs came down, dropping all four hooves on the ground.
Coot worked the reins wrapped around his hand and wrist, turning the pinto to the left, wheeling it around to bring the carbine in line with Gow. It spat, making a sharp, flat cracking sound. The bullet tagged Gow in the belly, a puff of dust springing up from his incredibly filthy shirt. He spasmed, then collapsed, jackknifing.
Coot's next shot took the top of Gow's head off.
It all happened so fast that Kinney Scopes was in a dilemma. He didn't know whether to pull his gun or turn tail and run, so he tried to do both. One hand tugged out his gun while the other tried to turn the horse to flee in the opposite direction.
Johnny Cross had always disliked Scopes, with his face seemingly frozen in a permanent expression of sneering contempt. He wiped off Scopes's smirk . . . with bullets.
“You okay, Coot?” Johnny asked, not even breathing hard.
“Fit as a fiddle.” Coot put his carbine back into the sheath. Catching sight of Johnny, he frowned. “Looks like you got tagged, though, son.”
Johnny lifted an eyebrow in question. Coot motioned, touching a hand to the right side of his neck. Johnny put a hand to the same place on his own neck, surprised to see his fingers come away bloody. He quickly became aware of a burning, stinging sensation in the affected area. Blood droplets stained the right shoulder of his lightweight denim jacket. His fingertips traced out the path of a shallow groove a half inch wide and several inches long running diagonally along the side of his neck.
A flesh woundâone of Brat Sisely's bullets had creased him. “Well I'll be a son of aâ!”
“Told you Brat was fast,” Coot said, not smugly but righteously, a man justified.
“Fast but not accurate,” Johnny countered.
“Lucky for you!”
It was lucky, Johnny knew. But as the saying goes, A miss is as good as a mile. He wasn't going to get upset about what
have happened. That was no way to go through life. Not his kind of life.
Johnny unknotted his bandanna, folding it and pressing it against the wound. It was still bleeding but not much. No veins or arteries severed, else he'd be spurting a stream of blood three feet long with every heartbeat.
Uncapping his canteen, he wet the bandanna and used it to mop up the blood, wiping it clean.
In the intense physical excitement of the kill, he'd been unaware of the wound. Now that he was aware, it discomforted him. Nothing he couldn't handle, though. Hell, he'd been shot for real, not once but a few times during his wild youth. This wound was only a scratch by comparison.
Coot rode up so that he was alongside Johnny and turned in the saddle to face him. Lifting the flap of a saddlebag, Coot took out a quart bottle of whiskey. “Here, try some of this. It's good for what ails you.”
“Thank you kindly,” Johnny said, uncorking the bottle “It's a little early for meâ”
“Since when?” Coot scoffed, snorting.
“Considering the circumstances, I'll join the jubilee.” Johnny took a long pull, liquid heat trickling down his throat into his belly, only to shoot back up to the top of his head to deliver a much-needed blast. “Ahhhhh . . .”