“No, I'm not,” Miss Phoebe began, “but no decent woman would coutenance that kind of brutality toward a youngster, or anyone else for that matter!” She was trembling with indignation.
“Hush up now, ma'am,” Cort said good-naturedly, amused.
“Yeah,” Devon said, “don't get yourself into trouble over some punk kid who ain't no kin of yours, you old bat.”
Miss Phoebe clamped her mouth shut, white-lipped, rigid.
Josh got up on hands and knees, looking around. A few men sitting at a table nearby started up out of their chairs to help out.
Cort Randle swung the rifle to cover them, shaking his head no. “As you were, gents.”
Burly ranch hands from the look of them, they were rough and ready and on the boil, but being under the gun, there was nothing for them to do but take it. They sat back down, eyes downcast, looking away.
Josh rose shakily and stood swaying on unsteady feet, his dark eyes popping in a drawn white face.
“Sit down at one of those tables and stay out of the way,” Devon said. “And the next time you're told to do something, hop to it.”
“Yes, sir!” Josh's voice cracked in mid-phrase.
Devon laughed cruelly.
Josh lurched toward the nearest table with an empty chair. He was limping, hurt. He sat down, elbows on the table, head hanging down so low his chin touched his chest.
Devon Randle studied McGurk, still sprawled facedown on the floor, motionless. Blood trickled from a lumpy purple goose egg on the back of his head
“Y'all who was so eager to lend a hand to Sonny Boy can make yourselves useful now,” Devon motioned with a gun, indicating McGurk. “Yeah, you,” he said to the cowboys who'd started up to help Josh. “Move that side of beef out of the way. Somebody might trip over him and hurt themselves.”
The cowboys stayed seated, not moving.
“Somebody's sure 'nuff going to get hurt if you don't haul ass out of those chairs and get to it,” Devon said.
Chair legs scraped against floorboards as the cowboys pushed back from the table and stood up. They went to McGurk, walking soft like they were walking on eggs. They stood around McGurk, his face lead-colored, watching Devon out of the corners of their eyes, hating him.
“He don't look so good,” one said.
“He still breathing?” asked another.
“He'll live, but some of you won't if you don't get to it,” Devon snapped.
The cowboys reached down, taking hold of McGurk's limbs.
“All together now, boys.”
Grunting exhalations of strain, they lifted McGurk off the floor by arms and legs, forcing a muffled groan from the unconscious man.
“Set him there against the wall,” Devon said, indicating the long wall on the left-hand side of the room.
The cowboys tried to position McGurk in a kind of sitting position with his back against the wall and his legs stretched out on the floor, but he kept leaning to one side or the other and toppling over. After several attempts, they succeeded in wedging him upright so he wouldn't choke on his own blood.
“That'll do,” Devon said. “Leave him there and sit down.”
The cowboys returned to their table.
A thought struck Devon, something he had neglected. “I'm going to lock the back door, Cort.”
“Okay, brother. I'll hold the fort.” Cort motioned with his leveled rifle to emphasize his words.
Devon went into the kitchen, doors swinging shut behind him.
Cort stood with his back to the wall, positioned between the front door and the windows, screened from the view of passersby on sidewalk or street. “Keep your heads down, folks. Don't kick up a fuss and you won't get hurt.”
The kitchen was small, hot, and steamy. Piles of dirty dishes lay heaped up in the sink and adjacent sideboard.
Devon holstered his right-hand gun and went down the aisle past the steam table and grill to the back door. It was open. He stuck his head outside and looked around. The view opened on the south side of town. Clumps of wooden frame buildings dotted a wide flat area. There were more vacant lots than structures, a lot more. Few people were out and about in that part of town; none seemed to be taking an interest in the cafÃ©.
Devon closed the door, bolted it, and went back into the dining room. “Y'all wouldn't be so quick to shovel in that slop you call a meal, if you got a look at that kitchen. It's a pigsty!”
Nobody in the dining room was eating. Mounds of food sat cooling on their plates unattended. Being held under the gun tended to quash even the heartiest appetites.
“Anything happening out there?” Devon asked Cort, indicating the street.
“All quiet so far as I can tell. Mostly I've been keeping my eyes on the folks here.”
Devon crossed to the unoccupied table bracketing the kitchen doors, pulled out a chair, and sat down facing front, his back to the wall. His hands rested on top of the table, a gun in each fist covering diners on both sides of the center aisle. “Take a look now, Cort.”
“Right.” Cort turned toward the window. He paused to give Luke a hard look, one that said,
Stay put and don't try anything funny
At least that's how Luke read it. He sure didn't want to be recognized. That could only change the situation for the worse by delivering a prime hostage into the hands of the foe.
Trust Johnny to make some damned fool self-sacrificing play to save Luke's neck. If it should come to thatâNo, Luke wouldn't let it come to that. He'd make a play that would force the Randles to shoot him and upset their whole applecart.
If they did for himâwell, what of it? He was already half a man and it wouldn't be much of a sacrifice for him to go the whole route. No great loss to the world . . . or him, either.
So went the wild bubbling froth seething in Luke's brain. He had no worries for himself and that was an asset. The plain truth of it was, he just plain didn't give a good damn whether he lived or died.
It was important to win, to foil the enemy. Take the initiative and turn the tables on them. About that, he was unyielding, filled with the old die-hard Rebel spirit.
No sign, no hint of the inner turmoil showed on Luke's face. He kept a poker face, not making eye contact with Cort because that's the way a cowed citizen would react.
To show defiance would be a mistake. If Cort or Devon Randle thought he had fight in him, they'd watch him more closely, ready to call him out if he made trouble. It would lessen his chances when he finally did make his play.
That he would was a foregone conclusion. Of that, there could be no doubt.
The question was, When?
Pretty damned soon from the look of things. Time was running out.
Most of the diners were armed, the men anyhow. It might not be too far-fetched to suggest that more than one woman was packing a little low-caliber ladies' pistol in a purse or handbag. But the Randles hadn't bothered to disarm the patrons of the cafÃ©. Too big a job, too burdensome, too many guns to handle at once. The brothers counted on keeping the crowd buffaloed.
From their point of view, it was better, easier and more practical to cover the diners en masse and ventilate any who reached for a weaponâor looked like they were reaching. The brothers were counting on the universal truth that sensible folks were not minded to risk their own necks to intervene in somebody else's private quarrel. Not when it was a killing matter.
Cort stood beside a window, holding his leveled rifle below the sillâan extra precaution against being seen by outsiders. Although the curtains screened him from the view of passersby, he avoided showing himself as much as possible. His rifle was pointed at Luke in a seemingly offhanded manner but that was deceptive. Those restless eyes of his didn't miss much.
He looked out the window, scanning the scene. Along Trail Street coursed a small but steady stream of trafficâhorseback riders, singly or in groups, carts, and wagons. People on foot crossed to and fro, none giving the cafÃ© a second glanceâand why should they? From all outward appearances, nothing was unusual, nothing untoward going on there. More important were their own errands and private business.
Three men stood loitering in the street at the southeast corner of the Cattleman Hotel, “best in town,” farther west on the north side of Trail Street. It was the place where the big buyers and wealthy ranchers stayed. Its private dining rooms served as meeting places for the gentry from near and far while its expansive bar served as their exclusive watering hole. On the veranda, rocking chairs and wicker couches were set out for the use of hotel clientele.
Three idlers were tough-looking hombresâvery tough. They didn't look out of place. Hangtree was a town where hard men were the rule rather than the exception. The trio was well-armed with a formidable array of six-guns. They were intently looking east along the street, eyeing the cafÃ© as if waiting for someone or something.
“Terry and the others are in place,” Cort said, noting the threesome.
“Give them the high sign,” said Devon.
Cort went to the front door, opening it partway and leaning outside. He held the rifle so it was hidden behind the door. He waved the trio on the corner in front of the hotel. One of them waved back. Cort ducked back inside, closing the door and bolting it shut. “They're ready to go.”
“Now all we need is Johnny Cross,” Devon said.
“He'll show when Moran calls him out.”
“That'll be any minute now.”
“You boys fixing to go up agin' Johnny Cross?” The speaker was Pete Conklin, a gray-bearded oldster who'd fought in the Texas War for Independence against Mexico's Santa Anna, the U.S War against Mexico in 1846.
More recently, he'd served in the Lone Star Home Guard militia during the War Between the States. He hadn't served in the regular Confederate army because the recruiting officers had said he was too old. They wouldn't budge on their decision, so for Conklin, the militia it was, where he rode as long and hard as men half his age.
A salty old character, Conklin sat at one of the round tables with a handful of likeminded old cronies. They'd been having lunch before the Brothers Randle came storming in. He knew Luke Pettigrew well, and Johnny Cross, too. He'd been a Hangtree resident for as long as Luke could remember.
As a crotchety middle-aged man he'd loosed more than one shotgun barrelful of rock salt at the fleeing backsides of Luke, Johnny, and some of their buddies when they'd made nighttime raids to steal fresh fruit from the apple trees in his orchard. Now he was a crotchety old man still full of piss and vinegar.
Luke listened carefully. He surely hoped that mouth of Conklin's wouldn't give away who he was.
“We're not going against Cross. Our pard is,” Cort smiled.
“And who might that be?” Conklin challenged.
“Terry MoranâTerrible Terry Moran! I reckon you've heard of him.”
“Nope,” Conklin said flatly. Maybe it was true or maybe he didn't want to give the brothers the satisfaction.
“You're not fooling anybody, old-timer,” Devon said, rising to the bait, irked. “You're not so far off from Weatherford and Parker County that you haven't heard of Terrible Terry and his gang. Nobody could be that ignorant.”
“We got enough real fire-eaters out this way without having to keep track of a lot of Weatherford trash.”
“You got a nasty mouth on you, old man.”
“Truth hurts, huh?” Conklin said, emphasizing his words by elbowing one of his cronies in the ribs.
“Haw! That's a good one, Conk,” cried one of his cronies at the table.
Devon rose from his chair. “That's enough out of you, you old foolâ”
“Easy, brother. He's just trying to get your goat,” Cort said, playing peacemaker.
Devon sat back down. “Sure, you're right, Cort. What else can you expect from a passel of backwards hayseeds?”
Cort shrugged. “Let them talk. They don't mean nothing by it. Even if they did, what could they do?”
“Fixin' to shoot Johnny Cross in the back, are ye?” Conklin asked.
“We're not fixing to shoot him at all,” Cort said. “Terry Moran doesn't need us to do any back shooting. Not Terrible Terry, Fastest Gun in All Texasâ”
“Think so, do ye? Heh, heh, heh!” Conklin gave him the horse laugh. “Maybe you got another think comin'! That Johnny Cross is a ring-tailed whizzer with the plow-handles and no mistakeâ”
“Not fast enough to beat Moran on the draw.”
“Don't bull me, mister. I know a bushwhacking when I see one.”
“I believe it! Bushwhacking and back shooting are what put Hangtown on the map,” Cort said. “We're going to make sure it doesn't happen to Terry when he downs your boy.”
“Hangtree don't work like that, mister. You must've got us confused with Weatherford.”
“This is Cross's town, see? He's got lots of friends here,” Cort went on. “We're here to make sure none of them interfere or side him at the showdown. It's going to be a fair draw between Terrible Terry and Cross, savvy?”
“Johnny Cross don't need nobody to fight his battles. He does for hisself,” Conklin said, careful not to look in Luke's direction.
The old buzzard still has his wits about him!
Cort said, “We're also backing Moran's play against interfering lawmen.”
“Huh! No worry about that with what passes for the law in this town!” Conklin cracked.
“Pretty soon, Terry's going to call Cross out and then we'll see who's who and what's what.”