omeone had taken paint and covered the names of the two towns on the signpost at the crossroads. Beneath one of the painted-out names was printed
. Beneath the other was printed
From where Frank sat his saddle at the crossroads, Heaven was five miles to the south, Hell was five miles to the north.
Frank looked at Dog, sitting off to the right, at the edge of the road. “Want to go to Heaven or Hell, Dog?”
Dog growled softly.
“Well, in some ways Hell might be more interesting, but Heaven sure sounds peaceful to me,” Frank said.
Dog sat and stared unblinkingly at him.
“Let's try Heaven, Dog. It's probably about as close as I'll ever get to the real thing.”
Before Frank could lift the reins and head for the town of Heaven, the rattling and rumbling of a wagon turned his head. A heavily loaded freight wagon was approaching from the east. The driver pulled alongside Frank and halted his team.
“Howdy,” the driver said.
“Afternoon,” Frank replied. “You going to Heaven or Hell?”
The driver chuckled and shifted his wad of chewing tobacco from one side of his mouth to the other. Then he spat. “Accordin' to the preacher, I'm hell-bound for my final haul. But today, I'm goin' to Heaven.”
“Mind if I ride along with you?”
“Not a-tall. Glad to have the company.” He looked at Dog. “That your dog?”
“He is. Name is Dog.”
“Fittin' name, I reckon. Looks mean.”
Frank smiled. “He'll bite a biscuit if you'll butter it.”
“Let me guess: your horse's name is Horse?”
The driver chuckled. “Mind if I ask your name?”
“I'm Luke, Frank. Glad to meet you and Dog and Horse. When we get to Heaven I'll let you buy me a drink. How's that sound?”
“They serve whiskey in Heaven?”
“Sounds strange, don't it? Yep, they do. They got everything a regular town has, âceptin' soiled doves.”
“No whores, huh?”
“Not nary a one.” He grinned. “ 'essin' you know where to look, that is.”
Frank laughed, lifted the reins, and proceeded on toward Heaven, putting Hell behind him, for the time being.
Heaven was a pleasant little town with a single long street and a half dozen or so shops and stores on each side: two saloonsâone on each side of the street, a hotel, a cafe, a huge general store, a livery, a ladies' dress and hat shop, a leather and gun shop, a barber and bath place, and several other smaller shops. There was nothing to distinguish it from dozens of other small Western towns Frank had ridden into and out of over the years.
“Folks is real friendly in Heaven,” Luke told Frank. “If you ain't workin' for them people over in Hell, that is.”
“I'm not working for anybody,” Frank told him. “Just drifting.”
“You shore look familiar to me, Frank. And you seem like a right nice feller. I hope I'm right on that last count.”
“Luke, all I want is a bath and haircut, a meal I don't have to cook myself, somebody to wash and press my clothes, and a soft bed to sleep in. Then I'm gone.”
“You can get all them things done in Heaven, Frank. I got to pull around back of the general store and unload. I'll see you around maybe.”
“I reckon so, Luke.”
Frank rode over to the livery, very conscious of many eyes on him. Not unfriendly eyes, just curious.
“Rub him down and feed him good,” Frank told the liveryman. “Dog will stay in the stall with him. Don't try to pet Dog unless he comes up to you and acts like he wants to be petted. He might snap at you. And don't get behind Horse. He kicks.” Frank paused, then added, “Matter of fact, he bites too.”
“Is there anything else them critters do I need to be warned about?” the liveryman asked.
“No, that's about it.”
“You got a secure place for my gear?”
“Sure. I got a storeroom yonder that I keep locked.”
“Fine. I'll check back later.”
“Gonna be in town long?”
“Couple of days.”
“Lookin' for anyone special?”
“No. Just a quiet place to relax for a day or two.”
“You look familiar to me. You ever been here before?”
“It'll come to me. I never forget a face.”
“Maybe so.” Frank gathered up his trail-worn clothes and walked across the street to the Chinese laundry, which was next to the bath and barbershop.
So far, so good,
Frank thought as he walked across the street.
I've found a place where no one knows me. For a time anyway. But somebody will ride up who recognizes me. They always do. So I'd better enjoy the peace while it lasts.
Frank Morgan was just about the last of a vanishing breed: a gunfighter. But it was a title he never wanted and had never actively sought. There were a few men like him still around. Smoke Jensen, Louis Longmont, to name a couple. But for the most part, many of the West's gunfighters either were dead or had dropped out of sight and changed their names. Mostly dead.
Frank dropped his clothes off to be washed and pressed, and then walked over to the general store and bought some new black britches and a red and white checkered shirt, with a black bandanna to top it all off. Then he went next door to the barbershop and had a good, hot bath, washing days of trail dust off him, then had a haircut and a shave while a boy polished up his boots. Frank buckled on his gunbelt and left the shop smelling and looking better than he had in days. His hat had just about lost its shape, but Frank figured he could work on that himself and get it back looking halfway decent. If he couldn't, he'd throw the damn thing away and go buy a new one.
Frank certainly didn't need to watch his pennies. He was a wealthy man for the time, due to his late wife's leaving him a percentage of her company's earnings in her will. And the company, left to her by her father, was vast, with various holdings all over North America. Frank had a trusted attorney and banker handling all his money, and they were doing a wonderful job of it.
Frank got a room at the hotel, registering under the name Moran, enjoyed an early, quiet, and very good supper at the Blue Moon Cafe, and then lingered over several cups of really good coffee. He complimented the waitress on how good the meal was.
“Most everything is homegrown, sir,” she told him. “The south part of the long series of valleys is all farm and sheep country, with a few small ranches here and there, mostly owned by men who also farm.”
Frank tensed at the word “sheep.” He hoped the waitress had not noticed.
She hadn't, just went right on continuing her praise of the south end of the series of valleys, ending with: “The north end, past the crossroads, is all cattle ranches.”
“Whose idea was it to change the names of the towns to Heaven and Hell?”
She smiled and shook her head. “I don't know. That was done several years ago and the names just sort of stuck.”
She refilled Frank's coffee cup and went off to wait on other customers who were coming in for an early supper. Frank rolled a cigarette and sat for a time, very conscious of the furtive glances he was receiving from the men who had taken seats in the cafe. He finally met the eyes of a man who was staring at him.
“Afternoon,” Frank said.
“Howdy,” the man said. “Forgive me for staring. We don't get many visitors to our town. Any new face draws attention. But we don't mean to be impolite.”
“That's all right. Doesn't bother me at all. You have a nice town.”
“Thank you. Our town is very peaceful. Just the way we like it.”
“I can appreciate that. I need to thank the freight driver for turning me south instead of north at the crossroads.”
“North would have taken you straight to Hell. It's a nice enough town, I suppose. But it can get rowdy sometimes.”
Frank smiled at the play on words. “Lives up to its name, hey?”
“At times, yes. It's a cattle town. But I suppose you already knew that”
“I guessed, from what the waitress told me.”
“You just passin' through?”
“Yep. I needed some supplies and a bath.” Frank left it at that, wondering how far the citizen would push it. Frank hoped not far, for pushing was something he didn't like. Frank Morgan had a habit of pushing back, verbally or physically.
“I'm the banker,” the citizen said. “John Simmons.”
The banker blinked. “Just Frank?”
“No, I have a last name.”
“Well, what is it?” one of the men seated at the table with the banker demanded in a very hard tone of voice.
“I don't figure that's any of your business,” Frank told him as his hackles began to rise. “But if you're that nosy you can go look at the hotel register.”
“I might just do that,” the citizen said.
“Go right ahead,” Frank replied, jerking his thumb. “The hotel is right over yonder across the street. Any fool can find it.”
The citizen flushed at that. “Are you calling me a fool?”
“No. I just said any fool can find the hotel.”
“Settle down, George,” the banker told his friend. He looked at Frank. “We're a little edgy, Frank.” He smiled. “I guess strangers bring that out in us.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“Stay around, Frank,” another citizen told him. “And you'll find out.”
“I just might do that.”
“Told you he was workin' for them,” George said.
“I'm not working for anybody,” Frank told the table of men. “And I'm not looking for a job. So put that out of your mind.”
“You say,” George sneered.
Frank had just about had enough of George and his mouth. He pushed back his chair, ready to stand up. “You calling me a liar, George?”
John Simmons held up a hand. “Steady, men. This is getting out of hand.”
Frank laid both hands on the table. “I'll take an apology.”
“You'll take nothin', drifter,” George said. “ 'Cause that's what I'm givin'.”
Frank abruptly stood up, and the table of men all stared at the .45-caliber Peacemaker slung low in leather and tied down.
“Gunfighter,” George breathed. “I knew it.”
“Are you?” John asked.
“I'm just a man with a tired horse who is looking for a warm bed and some relaxation. Nothing more. I'm sure as hell not looking for any gun trouble. I have a sore-pawed, worn-out dog with me and he'd like to rest for a time too.” Frank dropped some coins on the table for his meal and stepped back, away from the table. “Now if you gentlemen will excuse me, I'll be on my way to the hotel.”
Frank walked to the counter and ordered another full meal to go.
“You really must be hungry,” the waitress said.
“It's for my dog,” Frank told her.
The waitress blinked a couple of times, then smiled. “I'll get it for you.”
The customers watched as Frank left the cafe, Dog's supper in a sack, and walked toward the livery.
“I don't trust him,” George said. “He's workin' for the cattlemen.”
“You don't know that for sure,” John said.
“Tied-down gun,” George said. “That's a dead giveaway.”
“A lot of men tie down their pistols,” another citizen said. “Keeps the holster from flappin' around.”
“What do you know about gun-handlers, Paul?” George questioned. “You're still new out here. Have you ever even seen a gunfight?”
“I was in the war, George. I seen plenty of men die.”
“No pretty uniforms in this war, Paul. No bugles blowin' and fancy generals givin' orders. This is a different kind of war.”
“Let's give the man a chance,” John said. “But I have to say this: He sure looks familiar to me.”
* * *
“Same ol' crap, Dog,” Frank said as he unwrapped Dog's supper and set it down in the stall. Dog began eating the meat and bread. Frank found a bucket and filled it with fresh water from the pump. “Looks like we rode into a hornet's nest. We'll get rested up here and then hit the trail. I got to find us another packhorse 'fore we do, though. Then I'll provision up and we'll be on our way. You stay close to the livery now, you hear me?”
Dog looked up for a moment, then resumed his eating.
Frank patted Horse and then walked across the wide street to the saloon. He'd listen to the talk and maybe find out what was going on in the area. But he felt he knew pretty well already. Cattlemen and farmers nose-to-nose over land use. Add sheep to that and you had a damn explosive situation.
Most of the men in the saloon wore low-heeled clodhopper boots or work shoes, pegging them as farmers right off the mark. Several of the men wore business suits with high shirt collars and neck pieces. Bankers and lawyers and store owners and such, Frank figured.
The saloon fell silent when Frank entered.
He walked to the long bar and ordered a whiskey. Men began moving away from him, and Frank had to secretly smile at that.
Nothing ever changes,
A stranger shows up in a tense town and citizen reaction is always the same.
The bartender poured his whiskey and then moved away from him.