Authors: Jon Sharpe
Tags: #Fiction, #Westerns
It was one of the prisoners, stripped to the waist, his wrists lashed to the rail. His striped shirt lay in the dirt beside him.
Fargo didn't know the man's handle, but he remembered the face.
“That's Tilly!” Carmody gasped. “His real name was Tillson, but everyone called him Tilly.”
The late Mr. Tillson had been shot between the eyes. Both had rolled up into his head, part of which was missing.
“Shot while trying to escape,” was Fargo's guess.
“But why tie him to the rail like that?” Carmody asked, aghast. “How could they do such a thing?”
“A warning, maybe.”
“The other prisoners.”
“I bet it was the mayor's doing,” Carmody said fiercely. “It's something he would do.”
Fargo thought so, too.
Just then a loud
caused both of them to stiffen.
“That sounded like a door,” Carmody said.
It did to Fargo, too. After a couple of minutes went by and no one appeared, he said quietly, “I reckon it's safe enough,” and clucked to the Ovaro.
“Safe, hell,” Carmody said.
“You're going to make some hombre a fine nag someday,” Fargo said.
“I get killed, I'm coming back to haunt you. I'll make your life miserable.”
“You're off to a good start and you're not even dead yet.”
“You're a coldhearted bastardâdo you know that?”
“Says the woman who likes to bitch about everything.”
Carmody let a few seconds go by and said, “But you do know how to please a lady.” When he didn't respond she asked, “How about me? How was I for you?”
“I didn't fall asleep,” Fargo said.
“You really are a bastard.”
Fargo heard something but he wasn't sure what. He drew rein and listened. Other than the squall of a baby, the town lay undisturbed under the canopy of stars.
“What are we waiting for?” Carmody griped. “I don't like being out in the open.”
Fargo was tired of her carping. The sooner he was shed of her, the sooner he could be about the business of finding Alice Thorn.
Sticking to side streets, he led her to Jugs's boardinghouse and on around to the rear.
Every window was dark.
“I just realized,” Carmody whispered. “The doors are probably bolted. How will I get inside?”
Fargo opened the gate to the picket fence and Carmody followed him to the side of the house.
Fortunately, Jugs's room was on the ground floor. Fargo stood back and had Carmody tap on the window.
It took a while. At last the curtains parted and a face peered out and then fingers fumbled at the latch and the window scraped open.
“Carmody!” Jugs whispered in amazement. “Is that you?” She was wearing a nightdress that clung nicely to her breasts.
“I'm not alone,” Carmody said. “I'm with a friend of yours.”
Fargo moved to where Jugs could see him. “Remember me?”
Jugs's hand flew to her throat. “You!” she said. “It wasn't my fault. I had to testify the way I did.”
“I saw the bruises,” Fargo said. “Who beat you?”
“Deputy Brock,” Jugs said. “At the marshal's bidding. He only hit me twice. It was enough.” She looked from him to Carmody and out at the neighboring houses. “What are you doing here? I heard you got clean away.”
“It's not my idea,” Carmody assured her. “I need to lie low for a while and I was hoping you'd put me up. For old times' sake.”
“It was wrong, what they did to you,” Jugs said. “I raised a fuss about it and the mayor said if I kept on, he'd come up with something to charge me with and I could join you.”
“I hate that son of a bitch more than I've ever hated anyone,” Carmody said.
“You and me both. I suppose the smart thing for me to do was leave town, but I couldn't bring myself to do it with you behind bars.”
Carmody clasped Jugs's hand. “I knew I could count on you.”
“We always said we'd be friends forever,” Jugs reminded her, her voice breaking.
“Ladies,” Fargo interrupted. “Shed your tears inside, if you don't mind. I have a rifle to find.”
“A rifle?” Jugs said.
“Don't ask,” Carmody said as she hiked a leg to slide over the sill. “If dumb was money, he'd be rich.”
Jugs helped her in and both bent and peered out.
“Something you should know,” Jugs said. “They sent a posse after you.”
“Their mistake,” Fargo said.
“One other thing,” Jugs said. “The marshal figures you were to the blame for the escape, and the mayor was fit to be tied. I heard him mention how he plans to put a bounty on your head, dead or alive.”
“The least of my worries,” Fargo said.
“You won't think so when you hear how much. Five thousand dollars. Out of his own pocket, no less. He wants you to pay.”
Fargo turned to leave.
“Something else,” Jugs said. “Marshal Mako is out to nail your hide to a wall, too.”
“He would be. He's the law.”
“It's more than that. Mako thinks you made a laughingstock of him, and he can't stand that.”
“That's Skye for you,” Carmody said. “He charmed me right out of my clothes.”
Fargo hurried around to the gate and the Ovaro. He took Carmody's mount with him since leaving it there might arouse suspicion.
By a circuitous route he reached an alley a block from the marshal's office. Swinging down, he stalked to where he could see the barracks.
A light glowed inside, and the padlock was back on the door.
Fargo crept to a barred window. More than half the men were in their bunks, their legs shackled. The rest had either gotten away or ended up like Tilly.
He moved to the last window.
Sarabeth was the only female. She was curled on her side with her blanket pulled as high as her ear.
On cat's feet Fargo stalked to the jail. The back door was open a crack. That surprised him. So did seeing the burly wagon driver named Travers slumped over the desk with his head cradled on his forearms, apparently asleep.
Gliding over, Fargo pressed the Colt's muzzle to his temple. “Rise and shine.”
Travers didn't move, didn't react in any way.
Fargo rapped him with the barrel. “Wake up, lunkhead.”
One of the man's arms slid out from under him, and his cheek hit the desk with a
“What the hell?”
Only then did Fargo see a crimson stain under Travers's chin. Blood so fresh, it glistened. He pressed a finger to Travers's neck to feel for a pulse.
“Don't bother,” said a voice behind him as a gun was gouged against his spine. “I slit him from ear to ear. He's dead as dead can be.”
“Alice?” Fargo said, knowing full well it was. He started to turn.
“Don't,” she said, gouging harder.
“Is that my Henry?”
“I want it back.”
“Too bad. I've taken a shine to the thing. It's about the prettiest gun I ever did see. And it shoots as straight as can be.”
“I'm not asking.”
“Listen to you,” Alice said. “I'm the one holding a gun on you, not the other way around.”
“How about if I say âplease'?”
“How about if I say âgo play with yourself'?”
“Damn it all.”
Alice motioned. “Set the six-gun down, step past the desk, and you can turn around.”
Fargo did as she wanted, his arms out from his sides to show he wasn't a threat.
“That's far enough.”
“Thank you for not shooting me,” Fargo said.
“I haven't made up my mind yet what I'm going to do with you.”
“You owe me.”
“You're still breathing, ain't you? That counts for something right there.”
Fargo nodded at the marshal's gun cabinet. “Take one of Mako's rifles and give me mine and I'll go my way and leave you to your killing.”
“I just told you,” Alice said, “I've taken a shine to it.”
“You'd steal my rifle after I helped you get away?”
“There's more to this than you and me.”
“You're as pigheaded as they come,” Fargo said in disgust.
“And proud of it.”
Fargo gestured at the body. “What does that make? Six you've killed since I freed you? How many more before you're happy?”
“Everyone who had a hand in putting me behind bars is going to die.”
“All I ask if that you don't do it with my Henry. That's fair, isn't it?”
“What does fair have to do with anything?” Alice sat on the edge of the desk, the Henry rock-steady in her hands. “You need your ears cleaned out. I'm keeping your rifle and that's final.”
“There's a Spencer in the cabinet.” Fargo could see it from where he stood. “It's as good as my Henry. Why not take that?”
“Maybe it is as good. Maybe it ain't.” Alice paused. “And maybe you don't care that they arrested you and put you on trial and were set to lock you away for a good long spell.”
“I damn well do.”
“Not enough, or you'd savvy why I can't leave it be. Where I come from we stomp our own snakes.”
“I admire that, girl, butâ”
“I'm not no
I'm a full-grown woman. Would that I weren't.” Alice looked down at herself. “It's partly why I left home and was on my way to visit my aunt. I hankered to see more of the world than the farm fields of east Texas. Is that so wrong?”
“You're full-grown,” Fargo acknowledged. “Act your age, then.”
Alice snorted. “I'm being childish because I stand up for myself?”
Fargo tried one more time. “All I want is my rifle. Please.”
“I didn't take you for a weak sister, but I reckon I was mistaken.” Alice gnawed her bottom lip. “Still, you did break me out. So I reckon I'll give you a choice. We can do this easy or hard.”
“What's the easy?”
“I lock you in that cell yonder so you can't interfere.”
“And the hard?”
“I blow your brains out.”
“That's your idea of being fair?”
“No.” Alice Thorn smiled. “It's my way of saying thank you.”
Fargo didn't doubt she'd splatter his brains. Look at how many she'd killed already. But he still balked.
“You put me in that cell and Mako will slap a chain on me. I can't have that.”
“And I can't have you trying to stop me from doing what needs doing.”
“You say you owe me for breaking you out,” Fargo said. “How about this, then? You walk away and I don't try to stop you.”
“What about later on?”
“All bets are off.”
Alice scrunched up her face in thought. “I wouldn't want you in chains because of me. I wouldn't wish that on a dog. But I don't like the notion of having to look over my shoulder from here on out, either.”
“You'll have to anyway,” Fargo said. “Mako will be after you as soon as he finds out about the posse and what you did here.”
An odd little grin quirked Alice's lips. “Will he, now?” Stepping back, she lowered the Henry but kept it trained on him. “All right. I won't lock you up. But mark my words. You try to stop me, I'll put lead in you.”
“One thing,” Fargo said.
“You can't change my mind, so don't bother trying.”
“Not that,” Fargo said, and nodded at the Henry. “My rifle. I still want it back.”
“Damn, you are stubborn.”
“Take another from the gun rack and leave mine on the floor.”
“We've already been through this.”
“It's mine,” Fargo said.
“Not anymore. I reckon I'll hold on to it.”
“Damn it, Alice.”
“Don't be cussing me. I could have shot you a minute ago and didn't. How about we swap your life for your rifle? That's a fair trade.”
“You leave my rifle and I'll leave you be.”
Alice shook her head and began backing toward the rear door. “Sorry. The last rifle I owned was a single-shot squirrel gun. It wasn't shucks compared to this one.”
“Stealing my rifle is the same as stealing my horse,” Fargo said, trying to impress on her why he couldn't let it drop.
“No, it's not,” Alice responded, “and be thankful I don't take your stallion, too. He's a mighty fine animal.”
“I never would have guessed you're such a bitch.”
“That's the way,” Alice said, and laughed. “Sweet-talk me.” She reached the door and paused. “Let this be the last time I set eyes on you.”
“It won't be.”
“From here on out I won't be as nice. For your own sake, ride off while you can.”
“Any other time, I'd admire your grit,” Fargo admitted.
“No doubt about it,” Alice said. “You have a sugarcoated tongue.” She grinned and winked and melted into the darkness.
In a bound Fargo scooped up his Colt and ran to the back door. Careful not to show himself, he peered out.
Alice Thorn had disappeared.
Fargo swore. He wondered who she would go after next, the marshal or the mayor. He didn't know where Mako lived, so that left His Honor.
He hurried to the Ovaro and rode at a trot to the north end of town. Once in the open, he came to a gallop.
The sky was an indigo vault lit by a host of sparkling stars.
A meteor cleaved the canopy, leaving a fiery trail in its wake.
Fargo recollected hearing that some folks regarded shooting stars as bad omens. Fortunately he wasn't superstitious.
He passed countless cows, dim bulks off in the murk. Most were lying down.
At the turnoff he stopped.
The ranch house was as dark as the rest of the world. All was still, save for a slight breeze.
Fargo headed up the lane. Midway he reined wide to a stand of trees not far from the stable. It was as good a spot as any to lie low until Alice showed up.
He'd meant what he said about admiring her grit. She had more sand than most men.
He hoped to God he could get his rifle back without her forcing him to do something he didn't want to do.
He didn't give a damn about the marshal and the mayor. As far as he was concerned, she could blow out their wicks, and good riddance.
The stand was small, but it would do. He slid down and looped the reins around a sapling and moved out into the grass where he could watch the house and the road.
Now all he could do was wait.
Fargo pushed his hat back, and stretched. He could use some sleep. And a bottle of whiskey. And to be hell gone from Fairplay.
He tiredly rubbed his eyes. When he opened them, he caught movement near the stable.
Two dark forms, low to the ground, were gliding into the grass.
Fargo debated running to the Ovaro and fanning the breeze, but if they came after him, they'd go for the stallion's legs and might bring it down.
Instead he slid the Arkansas toothpick out.
They didn't bark, which was strange. They didn't even growl, which was stranger. Swift and silent, they streaked in with their fangs bared and their hackles bristling.
Fifty to sixty pounds each, Fargo guessed, with stocky, powerful bodies, and thick legs. And they were coming for the kill.
The first dog didn't slow, didn't hesitate. It sprang and its mouth gaped wide to rip and rend.
In a blur, Fargo slashed its neck and swiveled aside. Wet drops spattered as the dog went past.
It didn't yelp or growl.
Fargo had no time to wonder why. The second dog was on him. It didn't spring. It hurtled at his legs, apparently intending to bowl him over. He jumped straight up, or tried to. His bootheels caught on the dog's shoulders.
Upended, Fargo sprawled to the ground. He heaved to his knees and went to stand, but it was too late.
The dogs were on him again.
Fargo stabbed a hairy chest and nearly cried out as teeth sheared into his right shoulder. The dog's jaws clamped and held fast. He stabbed it in the face.
The other dog lunged at his belly and he backhanded it.
The first dog still clung to his shoulder. He stabbed it again, in the eye, and the dog let go and jerked back, tossing its head.
The second dog bored in. He cut its muzzle and, when it recoiled, cut its neck.
Both dogs retreated but only a short way.
The reprieve bought Fargo time to heave to his feet. He couldn't get over how the pair didn't make a sound no matter what he did. He wondered if they had been trained that way and then wanted to kick himself for thinking about something so ridiculous when he should be thinking about what really mattered: staying alive.
The dogs looked at each another and attacked simultaneously.
Fargo sliced high, thrust low. He drove them back but only a few steps.
In the starlight their eyes seemed to blaze with demonic light.
They were smart, these dogs. They couldn't get at him head-on, so one began to circle to the left and the other to the right.
Something about his voice gave them momentary pause. They held still until one gnashed the air with its teeth, breaking the spell.
Fargo backpedaled to keep them from closing in from both sides at once, but they stayed with him, their heads tilted low, their fangs glistening like small sabers.
He thought he heard a noise from the direction of the house, but he dared not look away. The dogs would be on him in a heartbeat.
The dog on the left stopped and stared at the dog on the right. The dog on the right stopped and both of them crouched.
Fargo braced his legs to keep from being bowled over. He needn't have bothered. Neither attacked low; both brutes leaped at his neck and face. He drove the toothpick into one and slammed the second with a fist.
They retreated once more.
Fargo yearned to use the Colt. He could finish this with two shots. But it would rouse whoever was in the house and, worse, alert Alice to his presence if she was anywhere around.
The dogs pounced, their movements so well coordinated that they moved as one.
Fargo winced at a stinging sensation in his left leg. He lanced the toothpick into a neck and whirled toward the other just as its teeth closed on his wrist. Images of his blood spraying every which way and of bleeding to death there in the tall grass flashed through his mind, even as he rammed the toothpick to the hilt.
Suddenly his arm was free. He took several quick steps back.
Both dogs were down. One was motionless, but the other convulsed in a violent spasm that ended with it flat on its back with its paws clawing at the sky. Then it, too, went limp.
Fargo sank to his knees. He was hurting, and bleeding. His wrist had a few bite marks, but they weren't deep. His shoulder, though, could stand to be bandaged.
Rising, he turned to go into the trees. He had an old buckskin shirt he could cut into strips for bandages.
It was under the bundle of pemmican. He changed his mind and cut the rabbit hide, instead. Tying it one-handed proved awkward, but he managed.
What Fargo wouldn't give for some whiskey. He'd stopped most of the bleeding, but the pain was worse. He'd just have to grit his teeth and bear it.
It occurred to him that he'd just made it easier for Alice Thorn. With the dogs disposed of, she could easily slip into the house and have her revenge.
“Some days,” Fargo said to the Ovaro. He replaced his spare shirt and what was left of the rabbit hide.
Wheeling, he strode toward the house with the toothpick in his left hand.
He was out of the trees and had taken several steps when the grass rustled and a gun hammer clicked behind him. He turned his head and was face-to-muzzle with a rifle. “Well, now,” he said. “Out for a late-night stroll?”
“You just killed our dogs, you son of a bitch. Get set to meet your Maker.”