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Authors: Jon Sharpe

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BOOK: Six-Gun Gallows
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“I already know it was a mistake to try and farm here, Mr. Fargo. Drought and grasshoppers have taught me that.”
Krissy waited until her mother wasn't looking, then gave Fargo a come-hither smile he could feel in his hip pocket. It took him a moment to regain his train of thought.
“No, all due respect—your mistake, Mrs. McCallister, was in leaving the Land of Steady Habits. You're just too far west, or too soon, anyhow. There's no dependable law out here in the Territories. Soldiers are scarce as hen's teeth—scattered so thin they can barely protect themselves, and these stupid three-month enlistments mean they never learn how to soldier.”
“Yes, I told my husband it was lawless out here, but he said there was law back east. So much that we were headed to the county poorhouse. They brought in tax assessors and started taxing us on horses, mules, cattle, even how many bushels of corn we harvested. Wilfred said the sun travels west and so would we.”
Fargo grinned. “My stick floats the same way his did. And nobody has the right to order you around. But it's becoming a tinderbox out here, and it's best to either stay east of the Mississippi or go all the way to Oregon where there's safety in numbers.”
Lorena shook her head stubbornly. “You mean well, Mr. Fargo, and you're probably right. But my man killed himself to scratch out this farm—worked so hard he died from a double hernia that putrefied his insides. My kids are big enough to do as they please, but I just ain't leaving.”
“And I won't leave Ma,” Krissy said, hungry eyes raking over Fargo. “Like the boys done.”
“We didn't leave her, you dang liar,” Dub snapped at his sister. “We set out to, well, earn some money for the family.”
“Shush it, both of you,” Lorena said, looking at Fargo again. “They're fine boys, Mr. Fargo. A bit thickheaded, but brave, honest, and faithful. Fine marksmen, too, thanks to my husband. Trouble is, Wilfred passed away before he really had a chance to finish turning them into frontiersmen. Come inside the barn a moment, there's something else I'd like to show you.”
Fargo followed her inside, the light dim after the glaring afternoon sunshine outside. The far end of the barn was obviously living quarters, complete with an iron cook stove, several chairs and a table, and beds. Halfway inside, Lorena knelt and dug her hands into the straw. She raised a trapdoor. Fargo noticed that pitch had been applied to it to keep the straw permanently in place.
“Wilfred dug it originally as an Indian tunnel,” she explained. “It runs straight behind the barn and comes out in a dry creek bed. You head about fifty feet to the left and there's a thick tangle of hawthorn bushes. They hide a small cave that Wilfred dug. So between Dan'l Boone, the peace pole, my Jennings rifle and this tunnel, we aren't exactly helpless females.”
“Well,” Fargo said, “it's ingenious, for a fact. I guess you ladies have survived this long without a man, you don't need one now.”
“Oh, I wouldn't put it exactly that way,” Krissy said.
Lorena chuckled. “You'll have to forgive the girl, Mr. Fargo. It ain't often we see a man as handsome as you. Or any other kind, for that matter.”
“I take that as a compliment from both of you, ma'am,” Fargo said, wishing like hell both these boys would turn into birds and fly away. It had been too damn long since he'd enjoyed the mazy waltz, and a tumble with either of these women was just the carnal tonic he needed.
“Anyway,” Fargo added, pulling a rawhide pouch from his pocket, “sometime back I got into a poker game with some soldiers and skinned 'em good. I consider poker winnings found money, and I got no use for it. I'd be honored if you folks would accept it.”
When Lorena refused to extend a hand, Fargo grabbed her wrist and extended it for her. He poured $100—five double-eagle gold pieces—into her palm.
“Mr. Fargo, we can't—”
“Like hell you can't. It's poker profits, not hard-earned pay. There's something else I been thinking about: these towhead boys of yours. You women could still use some protection, and they need to learn how to take care of themselves. It won't take long to mold good clay into good plainsmen. Why don't I start by taking both of them with me to the trading post in Sublette? We'll stock you up on dry and can goods and such.”
“Say! you're whistling!” Dub exclaimed. “Me and you, Nate, real plainsmen!”
Lorena looked as if she'd woken up in the middle of a dream. “Mr. Fargo, I don't know how to thank—”
“Found money, Mrs. McCallister, found money, remember? The wages of sin. 'Nuff said.”
“Well, don't you have to be somewhere?”
“The Nebraska Panhandle, but there's time,” he replied, leaving it there.
But Fargo strongly suspected he would sign his own death warrant if he headed toward any military installation while that pouch was in his possession. Nor did he plan to leave this area until he put “paid” to an account—that remorseless slaughter he witnessed yesterday, a sight seared into his memory for life.
 
Fargo and the McCallister brothers rode east for about an hour, closing in on the Cimarron River. Fargo kept his eyes to all sides, looking for motion, not shapes.
“When you're in wide-open country,” he told his companions, “don't focus your eyes too much on one spot. Let them take in everything—I call it letting the terrain come up to your eyeballs. And now and then, do this.”
Fargo tugged rein until he was facing north. “I'm looking at everything ahead of us from my side vision. Sometimes that shows things front vision will miss. Good trick for flatlanders to remember.”
“You expect more trouble, Mr. Fargo?” Dub asked.
“I always expect trouble, lad. That way you'll be ready for it. But now that you've brought it up—it's only fair to warn you that lead tends to fly around me.”
“Hell, we seen that already,” Nate said. “That's why we want to side you.”
“Look, slip a noose on this ‘side' business, why'n'cha? I'm a one-man outfit, and we ain't gettin' chummy. I told your ma I'd show you some trail craft, and I will try not to get you killed. Speaking of that . . .”
Fargo hauled back on the reins, lit down, and rummaged in his offside saddle pocket. He removed two handguns, giving one to each of the brothers.
“Dub, the weapon you're holding is a Colt Navy, single-action. You've prob'ly shot squirrel guns, but do you know what single-action means?”
“Yessir. After you shoot it, you have to cock the hammer back to rotate the next bullet into the chamber.”
“Well, your pa taught you something, anyhow. Nate, your gun is a Lafaucheux six-shot pinfire revolver. It's French. Ever heard of pinfires?”
“No, sir.”
“Instead of a hammer that strikes a percussion cap,” Fargo explained, “it shoves a long pin straight into a paper cartridge. Not a bad gun, but the cartridges are hard to locate.”
“Lookit there,” Dub said. “It's got a foldaway knife blade under the barrel.”
“Good for nothing but cleaning fish,” Fargo scoffed. “There's one serious drawback, Nate—paper cartridges go off too easy if you bang the weapon. So no cartridge under the hammer until you're ready to shoot.”
“Where'd you get these guns?” Nate asked.
“Let's just say,” Fargo replied, “that their former owners have no use for them now. Let's see how you boys do. Now, I don't expect a hit, just do your best. Dub, you first.”
Fargo was convinced that these green-antlered farm boys couldn't likely hit a tent from the inside, so he pulled out his tin plate and flipped it high into the air.
Dub fired once, sent the plate spinning, thumb-cocked the Colt Navy in a heartbeat, fired again and made it hop even higher.
Fargo's jaw was still falling open in astonishment when Nate took over, likewise drilling the plate twice with two shots before it hit the ground.
“Holy Christ,” Fargo said. “When your ma said you were good shots, she wasn't stretching the blanket, was she? Boys, excuse me while I pull my foot out of my mouth.”
“Whatever trouble you're in, Mr. Fargo,” Dub pressed eagerly, “can we side you now?”
Fargo picked up his plate, staring ruefully at the four bullet holes in it. “Well, gents, you may be green, but you're solid wood. It's getting too late to be riding into Sublette. We'll make a cold camp, and I'll sleep on it.You sleep on it, too. Like I said—lead tends to fly around me.”
5
Fargo picked a tree-sheltered area beside the Cimarron River for their camp that night. The three riders rubbed down their horses and put them on long tethers so they could graze during the night.
“If we had a fire going,” Fargo explained, “that would mark our location for an enemy. So we'll leave the horses farther out until we turn in, then bring them in close. That way we save some grass for them. Besides, if your enemy kills your horse, he doesn't need to kill you. A man afoot in these plains is as good as dead.”
“Shouldn't we take turns standing guard?” Dub asked.
“My horse is an excellent sentry after dark. And whoever's watching us is keeping their distance, and without a fire they won't know where we are.”
“Mr. Fargo,” Nate said, “why are men watching you?”
“And shooting at you,” Nate added.
“Well, you boys have a right to know.”
Fargo reminded them about the brutal attack on the Quakers yesterday, and added the detail about the mysterious doeskin pouch the old matriarch had given him.
“The yellow-bellied sons of bitches,” Dub said. “But what's in that pouch that they want it so bad?”
“That's a poser, all right. For that matter, you can rob unarmed people without killing them. But I'll tell you this much—when border ruffians don't bother to steal from their victims, that tells me they're getting good money from somebody who's got deep pockets.”
“F'rinstance, who?”
Fargo shifted his back against a rough cottonwood, scratching himself like a buffalo. “Boys, to you this land looks empty. But I've marked the changes over the years. The Philadelphia lawyers, the New York land hunters, the deep-rock miners, the railroad barons—they've got their own ‘scouts,' and they're out here right now, figuring out how they can divide the West up among them and then tax the rest of us to guarantee their fortunes. It's all percentages and angles. And sometimes these scouts have to stir up some disasters to further their cause. They don't care a frog's fat ass for the natural beauty or for whoever they have to destroy to do their masters' bidding.”
“Damn,” Dub remarked. “Our pa use to talk a lot like that. Anyhow, can't you just open that pouch?”
“The order from that dying messenger,” Fargo said, “was to leave it sealed and give it to an officer. Even though I'm not a soldier, I just signed a contract for more work with the frontier outposts. That puts me under military law.”
“Oh. Then how's come you don't just take it to the nearest fort? There's Fort Hays a few days northeast of here.”
Fargo grinned. Young men never seemed to run dry of questions.
“Because,” he said, “as you saw yesterday, those heel flies pestering me will kill me. They're staying on me like ugly on a buzzard. Long as I stay in this area, they'll try to kill me with some discretion. But if I make a beeline out of here, I'll have every jayhawker in the territory trying to snuff my wick. You two sharpshooters need to think about all that before you decide to stick or quit.”
“I'll stick,” Dub said immediately.
“Me, too,” Nate echoed. “Pa always said even God hates a coward.”
Fargo rolled into his blankets. “Judging from the quality of your mother, and your marksmanship, your pa was quite a man.”
“Top of the heap,” Dub said proudly. “How 'bout your folks, Mr. Fargo?”
“Best get some shut-eye,” Fargo told them. “Could be a long day tomorrow.”
 
Fargo shook the McCallister boys awake at first light, then whistled in the Ovaro and tacked him.
“We'll skip morning grub and grab something at Sublette,” he explained. “From here on in, keep your eyes peeled.”
Sublette was about a three-hour ride. Before he hit leather, Fargo lay flat on the ground and placed his right ear just above it.
“Ain't you s'pose to press your ear to the ground?” Dub asked.
“No, just above it, or all you'll hear is your own heart pulsing. Well, no big group of riders closing in, anyhow. Let's dust our hocks.”
All three riders scanned the wide-open plains as they rode. The bloodred sun rose higher and turned a burning yellow.
“Mr. Fargo?” Dub said. “I been using my eyes like you said to yesterday. I think there's riders way to the south, tracking us.”
“Good man,” Fargo praised. “I see them, too.”
When Nate started to guzzle water from his canteen, Fargo spoke up. “Gradual on that.”
“Why? Water ain't scarce in these parts.”
“When you drink water in the sun, you just sweat it out and don't get the use of it. And both you jays, stop pulling your horses' heads up when they're smelling the ground. All horses do that in country they're not familiar with. It calms them down.”
“Dang,” Nate said. “Riding with you, Mr. Fargo, is like being in school.”
“Yeah, except this is school for staying alive. And you better remember your lessons.”
“Yessir, schoolmaster.”
A half hour later they topped a limestone ridge and saw Sublette lying in a bowl-shaped depression below them. The place had grown since Fargo's first time there awhile back. The big, split-log trading post sat beside a feeder creek of the Cimarron. But a sprawl of newer structures—and a few large tents—had grown up around it like spokes around a hub. The Quakers Fargo had guided in two days earlier, after dark, were camped with other pilgrims in good graze about a quarter mile east of the trading post.
BOOK: Six-Gun Gallows
6.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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