Authors: Jon Sharpe
Tags: #Fiction, #Westerns
Fargo had several hours to kill before nightfall, so he took a stroll around Fairplay. Every street he took, he saw smiling, happy people. Many nodded and acted as friendly as could be.
It made him wonder. People weren't this friendly. Not normally.
It wasn't natural to see so many men walking around unarmed, either. Sure, east of the Mississippi River, it was common. But west of it, and especially in Texas, guns were as commonplace as clothes.
He decided to put the Ovaro up at a stable. The livery attendant was young and freckled and eager to please.
No sooner had Fargo walked back out into the hot sun than he acquired a second shadow.
“You put your animal up for the night?” Deputy Gergan stated the obvious.
“That I did,” Fargo said in a much friendlier fashion than he felt.
“The marshal thought you were only staying a few hours,” Gergan said.
“Is it against the law to stay the night?”
“Don't be silly. Anyone can come and go however they so please.”
“Is there a hotel you'd recommend?”
Gergan waved an arm up the street. “We have a couple of boardinghouses that put folks up by the night or the month or longer.”
“I'm obliged,” Fargo said. He turned to go and then turned back as if he'd been struck by a thought. “You're not following me, are you?”
“Why in hell would I do that?” Deputy Gergan asked much too gruffly.
Fargo shrugged. “Just thought it was peculiar, you popping out of nowhere like you did.”
“I happened to be passing by.”
“You don't say,” Fargo said, and let it go at that. He didn't believe it for a second. Apparently Marshal Mako had strangers watched as a matter of course.
“I just did say it,” Gergan said.
Fargo smiled. He liked that both deputies were as dumb as tree stumps. It would make it easier. “Give the marshal my regards.”
“Sure,” Gergan said.
Fargo came to a building with a sign that said they took in boarders, went up onto a porch, and pulled a cord that rang a bell inside. Shortly the door opened, framing an elderly woman with hair as white as snow. “Ma'am,” he said.
“I'm Miss Emily. I own this establishment. What can I do for you?”
Fargo explained about needing a room for the night.
“I have one available,” Miss Emily said. “You pay in advance and you follow the rules.”
“Rules?” Fargo said.
She recited them as if they were the Ten Commandments. “No drinking. No smoking. No tobacco chewing. No women. No loud noises. Lights are to be out by ten. Breakfast is at six. Two eggs, bacon, and toast.”
“Sounds like my kind of place,” Fargo said.
Miss Emily cocked her head and regarded him as if she couldn't decide if he was sincere or mocking her. “That's how it is. Stay or not, your choice.”
Fargo paid and she ushered him in and down the hall to a room on the right. Small but comfortable, it had a bed and a dresser. Fargo walked over and stared out the window. “All I see is a fence.” Not that he gave a damn about the view. With his back to her so she wouldn't notice, he worked the latch.
“What does that matter?” Miss Emily asked.
Fargo faced her and smiled. “It doesn't.” He made a show of stretching and patting his stomach. “Where can a gent get a good meal around here? You didn't say a word about supper.”
“I only serve breakfast,” Miss Emily said. “Try two blocks down and go left. The Cow Bell has good food.”
“You're most kind.” Fargo laid it on a little thick.
“What I am is practical,” Miss Emily said, “and a stickler for the rules.”
“There seems to be a lot of that around here,” Fargo mentioned.
“And we're better off for it,” Miss Emily declared.
She walked him out.
Fargo paused on the front threshold and flicked his eyes right and left.
Down the street, Deputy Gergan ducked into a doorway, but much too slowly.
Grinning, Fargo ambled to the restaurant. The Cow Bell had a damn strange name and, if the aromas were any indication, damn fine food. He ordered a steak with all the trimmings and told the gal in the apron to keep the coffee coming until it leaked out his ears.
About then Deputy Gergan walked past the front window with his hands in his pockets, trying to appear as innocent as the proverbial lamb.
“Let's hear it for simpletons,” Fargo said to himself. But it bothered him. He couldn't very well do what he wanted with them watching him so closely.
The meal took his mind off it for a while. Two inches thick and sizzling with juicy fat, the steak made his mouth water. A mountain of mashed potatoes drowned in brown gravy and enough peas to gag a rabbit completed the main course. He also had four slices of bread smeared in butter and coffee.
Fargo wasn't in any hurry. He took so long that Deputy Gergan went past the window twice to make sure he was still in there.
For dessert, Fargo had hot apple pie. When he was done he sat back and patted his stomach again, this time in contentment. He was slightly drowsy, and that wouldn't do. To shake it off, he walked the streets and watched the sun set.
Texas sunsets could be spectacular; this one splashed vivid colors across half the sky.
The first twinkling stars were a reminder to bend his boots to the Tumbleweed. The saloon was crowded. Every table was filled and there was barely elbow space at the bar. Whatever else might be said about the good folks of Fairplay, the men were like men most everywhere else and were fond of their liquor.
Jugs was with a townsman in a bowler. She grinned and nodded at Fargo over the man's shoulder.
Fargo threaded to the far side of the room and stood near a narrow hall that led into the back. He didn't have to wait more than half a minute before Deputy Gergan appeared at the batwings and peered over, trying to spot him.
A single step took Fargo into the hall. He passed a couple of rooms and went out the back door.
Not wasting a second, he headed down a side street. At the third corner he looked back. There was no sign of Gergan.
The heat of the day had given way to the pleasant cool of evening, and a lot of the citizenry were out and about.
Fargo stuck to the shadows. He was the only one in town wearing buckskins, and he'd rather not draw attention.
Half a block from the marshal's office, Fargo turned into an alley. Once out the other end, he went left past a butcher's.
Ahead, and directly behind the jail, was a long, low building with four small, barred windows. Feeble light filled the squares.
Fargo took a gamble. He looked both ways to be sure no one was around, then ran to the nearest window, rose onto his toes, and peered in.
Small, narrow beds lined both walls. The men were lying back and talking, their faces mirrors of despair. Every last one had a metal strap around his ankle linked by a chain to an iron stanchion in the floor.
Fargo craned his neck to see the only door at the front, then craned it the other way and spied a partition farther down. It only rose half the way to the ceiling, just enough to hide whatever was beyond.
Crouching, Fargo glided to the last of the windows and again rose onto his toes.
Only six beds this time, and only three were occupied. Carmody Wells was on her back with a hand over face, but he recognized her right way.
Another young woman was huddled with an older woman. The young one was small and slim and almost boyish but had a pretty face, and freckles. The older one had gray at the temples and almost as many wrinkles as Miss Emily.
Fargo slid his fingers between the bars and tapped on the glass.
All three women gave a start.
Carmody sat up and looked at the window. Hope lit her face and she slid off the bed and took a step but couldn't take another because of the chain. She said something, but Fargo couldn't hear the words.
A sound from the jail caused Fargo to drop flat. There were voices and the jangle of keys.
A rectangle of light speared the twenty feet of space between the office and the so-called barracks.
In a crouch, Fargo cat-footed to the front.
The marshal's office was well lit, the back door wide open. A desk was visible, and a lamp. No one appeared to be inside.
The door to the barracks was open, and inside someone bellowed, “In your beds! Now! You know what to do, you peckerwoods.”
Fargo went to the first window and peered in.
Deputy Clyde and another deputy were overseeing a scramble by the prisoners to turn in.
The new deputy was as big as an ox, with a bushy beard and fists the size of hams. A constant frown creased his craggy face, and he looked ready to tear into anyone who gave him sass.
Clyde was grinning. “Like a bunch of mice,” he said, and laughed.
Most of the prisoners couldn't hide their fear. A few glared in defiance.
“Give me cause,” the big deputy dared them. “Give me any cause at all.”
“You tell them, Brock,” Clyde said.
Deputy Brock lumbered down the aisle, a bear spoiling for a fight. “I'd as soon bust your skulls,” he declared, “but dead men can't do any work.”
Deputy Clyde cackled. “Ain't you a hoot, Brock? You truly are.”
Brock stopped at the foot of a bed. The man in it met his stare with surprising calm. “Something on your mind, Harris?”
“Not mine,” Harris said. “Only six days to go. I won't do anything to ruin my chances.”
Bending, Brock clamped a brawny hand on the man's other leg, midcalf. “Oh?” he said, and his thick fingers tightened.
Harris grimaced and tried to draw away.
“Want to hit me?” Brock taunted. “Want to take a swing?”
“No,” Harris got out between clenched teeth. “Never.”
“Liar,” Brock said, and his fingers seemed to disappear into the folds of Harris's baggy pants. “You know you do. Come on. Just one punch.”
“And have to serve another year?” Harris shook his head. “Not on your life.”
“There are still six days,” Brock said, and let go. Puffing his chest out, he swaggered on to the partition and rapped on the small door. “Knock, knock, ladies,” he said. “Ready or not, here we come.”
Fargo had to see. He made it to the last window and peered in just as Brock and Clyde entered.
The women were in their beds. The older one shrank against the wall, terrified. The pretty young one with the freckles glared in pure and utter hate, not scared at all.
Carmody Jones sat up and said loud enough that Fargo heard her, “Get out of here, you two.”
“Shut up, bitch,” Deputy Brock said. “We make a bed check every night. You know that.”
“Bed check,” Deputy Clyde said, and did more of his usual snickering.
Brock moved to Carmody's bunk. He reached out to touch her leg, but she drew it back. “Still got some spunk in you, I see.”
“Try that again and you'll find out how much,” Carmody said.
“I like 'em feisty.” Deputy Brock leered at her. “It's more fun.”
“Leave her be,” the young woman with the freckles said, “or I'll rip out your throat with my teeth.”
Brock laughed. “I'm supposed to be scared of a little thing like you?”
“I won't have this chain on forever,” the woman with the freckles said.
“We'll break you like a wild horse,” Deputy Brock said, “you and Carmody both.”
“Your boss already tried,” the freckled woman said. “He's second on my list after that no-good mayor.”
“What list?” Brock asked.
“Those I aim to send to hell for how they've treated me.”
“Listen to you,” Deputy Clyde said in contempt. “We're plumb scared.”
“We're tired of your sass,” Brock said.
“Do something about it, then,” the freckled woman said. “If you're man enough.”
Brock stepped to the side of her bunk and reached out to grab her hair, but she swatted his arm away.
Suddenly all of them froze.
Marshal Luther Mako had appeared out of nowhere.
Brock was larger and heavier, but Mako seized his arm and slammed him against the wall so hard, the entire barracks seemed to shake.
“Marshal!” Brock bleated.
Mako placed his hands on his Starr revolvers. “What are you up to?”
“Bed check,” Brock said quickly.
Deputy Clyde had stopped snickering and was cringing toward the wall as if in fear of being shot.
“You're never to touch the females,” Mako said.
“She was acting up,” Deputy Brock said. “And she insulted me.”
Just like that, a revolver was in Mako's hand. It was one of the fastest draws Fargo had ever witnessed, and he'd seen more than his share. Mako pressed the muzzle against Brock's cheek and thumbed back the hammer.
“Don't!” Brock bleated. “I was only doing my job.”
,” Mako said, “is to see that all the prisoners are in their beds.”
“I wouldn't have hurt her. I give you my word.” Brock opened his mouth to say more but stiffened in fear.
A change had come over Luther Mako. His entire body seemed to harden, his face most of all, his eyes glittering like twin spikes. Belly or not, here was a man who was as dangerous as any, and then some. In a guttural growl he said, “It must be the wax in your ears.”
Brock's throat bobbed. “Wax?”
“When I say to do something, you do it. You don't argue. You don't talk back.”
“I'd never,” Brock said, and damned if he wasn't trembling.
“You just did. But I'll let you off, this time.” Mako stepped back. He twirled his revolver and then reversed the twirl and slid it into its holster as neatly as you please.
“You can depend on me,” Brock said. “Honest, you can.”
“I hope for your sake you're right,” Marshal Mako said.
“I know my job,” Brock said.
“Do you? Maybe I'd better set you straight on a few things, anyway.” Mako hooked his thumbs in his gun belt. “Mayor Stoddard says how things will be. If he tells you to jump, you ask how high.”
“I savvy that,” Brock said.
With lightning speed, the six-gun was again in Mako's pudgy hand and pressed against Brock's sweaty face. “Did I say you could talk?”
“Go head,” Mako said. “I dare you.”
Brock tried to shake his head but couldn't with the barrel gouging his cheek.
“If it's not the wax,” Mako said, “it must be the empty space between your ears.”
Wisely, for once, Brock said nothing.
“So again,” Mako said, “if Mayor Stoddard says the women aren't ever to be touched, except by me, then you, by God, better damn well not.” He glanced at Deputy Clyde, who cringed as if he'd been slapped. “Isn't that right?”
“Right as rain, Marshal,” Clyde squeaked.
“Now, you might think it's strange,” Mako went on to Brock, “that the mayor wants us to treat these bitches as if they were ladiesâ”
“Hey!” Carmody exclaimed.
“âbut he's funny that way. He has a great respect for womanhood, as he calls it. That's why he passed a law against whores.”
“I always thought that was a shame,” Deputy Clyde blurted, and then, appalled by his own boldness, he clamped his mouth shut and put his hand over it.
Mako's jaw muscles twitched. “The point, you jackasses, is that the mayor does everything by the law. His law. Break it and you end up in here. Or worse.”
“I won't ever touch them,” Brock said. “I promise.”
Fargo was so intent on overhearing what was said that he almost failed to notice when Marshal Mako started to turn toward the window. Instantly he ducked and waited for an outcry, but there was none. He didn't tempt fate. He got out of there, counting on the darkness to conceal him if the lawman looked out.
He returned to the saloon by a winding route.
Halfway there, a feeling came over him that he was being followed. He looked back but saw only a man and a woman strolling arm in arm.
Shrugging, Fargo continued on. Half a block later the feeling came over him again. This time he ducked into a dark doorway. Several minutes went by and no one appeared. He stepped out and scanned the street. The few people he saw were going about their own business.
Fargo walked on, puzzled. Normally he could count on his hunches. Honed by his years in the wilds, his instincts were rarely wrong.
The feeling persisted all the way to the Tumbleweed. He glanced over his shoulder as he pushed on the batwings, but again, nothing.
The place was lively. Everyone was having a good time. The smell of booze, the clink of poker chips, the haze of cigar smoke were a tonic.
Fargo bought a bottle and sat in on a game of poker.
“The usual rules,” the dealer informed him as he cut the cards. “Except that you can't ever raise more than a dollar.”
Fargo thought his hearing must be going. “Was that your notion of funny?”
“Sure wasn't, mister,” another player said. “It's the law.”
Fargo absorbed that. “There's a law against betting more than a dollar?”
The dealer nodded. “The mayor says it cuts down on violence.”
“That's right,” another man said. He favored red suspenders and a green shirt. “Players hardly ever fight over a dollar.”
“And everyone goes along with it?”
“It's the law,” the dealer said.
A third man mentioned, “If the marshal hears we broke the limit, we'd be hauled off and fined.”
“A dollar limit it is,” Fargo said.
“It's good you're so reasonable,” the dealer said. “Some strangers come riding into Fairplay and reckon they can do as they damn well please.”
“They find out soon enough they damn well can't,” said the man wearing the red suspenders.
“Are there many sheep raised hereabouts?” Fargo couldn't resist asking.
All the players stared.
“Sheep?” the dealer said.
“This is cow country, mister.”
“Woolies wouldn't be welcome here.”
“What in hell makes you think there'd be sheep, anyhow?”
Fargo placed his poke on the table and opened it. “Everywhere I go, I hear them.”
The man who was about to deal stopped. “I savvy what he's saying, boys. He's saying we're the sheep.”
“How come us?” the man in the suspenders said.
“You'd better be careful with talk like that, mister,” the dealer warned. “Some of us might not take too kindly to it.”
“What will you do besides twiddle your thumbs?” Fargo wondered.
“Insult us all you want,” the dealer said. “We like a peaceful town.”
“Everyone's happy here,” the man with the suspenders said.
Fargo knew he should keep his mouth shut, but he couldn't. “Except the ones in chains.”
“They brought it on themselves. They broke the law.”
“What concern is it of yours, anyhow?” the last player demanded.
“None,” Fargo said. “In a day or two your town will be miles behind me.” He almost added, “And good riddance.”
“Fine by us,” the dealer said. “We don't cotton to folks who don't cotton to us.”
The game got under way. Fargo ignored their glares and frowns. To spite them he always raised the dollar limit. After an hour he was six dollars ahead. At that rate, in a hundred years he'd be rich.
A clock over the bar pegged the time at fifteen minutes to midnight when Fargo announced he needed to turn in. He had half a bottle left and took it with him.
The night air was invigorating.
Going around to the side of the saloon, he scanned the street, then moved to the rear.
Jugs was true to her word; it wasn't long before she stepped out the back door with a shawl over her shoulder. Coming into the shadows, she grinned.
“Ready for some fun, handsome?”
“I was born ready,” Fargo said.