I promised I’d tell you where I’d been this past year. You might like to make some coffee first.
I always wanted to go to Denver. No special reason. A liking for the name’s all it ever was, but that liking became a calling when I had to leave Blogsville.
Denver sure is a long way. A month’s ride, I reckon, but a week in the saddle is seven days enough for a man in need a drink. Since I was eighty miles to the good on my promise to the sheriff, I picked up the trail to Stirrup Creek, a mining town on the Muddy River.
I’ve been in towns all over the west, Tucson, Dodge and all the rest, but never before have I seen so many bars and gambling halls. With a cat house called The Playful Pussy, Stirrup Creek was my kind of town. Too bad the price of a drink left me broke, but another night under the stars hurt none. Sleep don’t come easy anyhow, when your mind’s chasing a hundred ways of making a living.
Sometime around noon I woke up in a pasture. I thought I’d heard music, but it seemed I was wrong. Everything was quiet when I got up and stretched my bones, but as I packed up my bedroll, I heard it again. Sounded like a circus coming to town. The music led me to an old corral, where folks were gathering round a little fat fella in a big hat and a dandy suit. Standing beside a covered wagon, he was turning the handle on a barrel organ.
Hell, what a disappointment. I was hoping to see a lion or an elephant or something, not some sawn-off fairground hustler. Just as I turned my thoughts to charming a breakfast somewhere, my eye was taken by a fulsome beauty with a swing in her hips. She was parading up and down with a banner, and on that banner…
Theodore Mayhew might have been short in height but he sure wasn’t short of bluster. Tugging on his lapels, he puffed himself up to his full five foot two as he addressed the crowd.
‘Gather round ladies and gentlemen, gather round. Mayhew’s the name, shooting’s the game. I see a lot of fine men before me, men who wear guns and know how to use them. Why, the evidence of my eyes is clear, the finest shots in Stirrup Creek are standing right here. But how good are you? As good as you think, or indeed, as good as you say? And which of you is the best? Well, for a small stake here’s your chance to find out and win a ten dollar prize. So what are you waiting for?’
A murmur spread throughout the gathering. As fast as men came forward, Mayhew was snatching their money and piling it into his hat. Then another voice got a work, a female voice at the back of the crowd.
‘C’mon boys, here’s your chance to impress me. It might be the one chance you get, so what are you waiting for?’
It was the girl with the poster, and sweet juicy peaches, was she something special. The closer she came the prettier she got, with a wiggle and a smile that’d shake the last nickel out of any man.
‘Say Mister, you’re packing a gun. What’s holding you back? Don’t you wanna show a girl how good you are?’
Lord, my sinful mind, what a woman. I was sorely tempted, but she passed me by without a second glance when I told her I was broke. That would have been the end of it if an old timer hadn’t seen me standing alone, and sidled over.
‘Forgive my intrusion son, but I couldn’t help eavesdropping. Tell me something, can you use that gun as well as I think you can?’
For a grizzled old buzzard with more food in his whiskers than I'd eaten in days, he wasn’t a bad judge. I told him so too.
‘Good enough to stand a chance of winning?’
‘Better than most,’ I said.
He pressed a quarter into my hand. ‘Here, take this and do the best you can. I was good with a gun once. My eyes ain’t so sharp now, but that don’t mean I can’t back a winner.’
Thanking the old fella didn’t seem enough. I thanked him anyway, best I could. I’d have said more if hadn’t been so tongue tied, humbled and just plain stuck for words. I guess I ain’t used to folks having faith in me.
After drawing straws we played off, one man against another, six shots apiece at ten paces, shooting wooden backed posters of the ugliest bunch of desperados you ever saw. Now, I don’t know if I was too dang blasted hasty or just a little rusty, but it sure bruised my pride to miss with my first shot. From thereon in though, my shooting was clean. My five out of six easily beat the nothing score of a greenhorn who couldn’t hit a barn door with a shotgun.
Five rounds of shooting cut the numbers by half. By then we were shooting from twenty paces against a count of ten. As the shakedown progressed, the contenders stood out, the best of them being a kid with a steady hand and an ice cold stare. If he missed a single shot, I didn’t see it. Hell, could he shoot. It came as no surprise to find him alongside me in the final shoot out.
From twenty five paces I hit six out six. But then so did he, and when the kid did it a second time, so did I. When it seemed nothing was gonna separate us, Mayhew suggested we split the prize. That was fine by me, but not so agreeable to the kid.
‘You expect me to share with the likes of him?’ he said.
Course I didn’t take kindly to his words or his sneer, but I’ve been around long enough to know there’s a time for keeping a cool head, and a time for kicking someone’s teeth out down a dark alley.
‘All right!’ said Mayhew, ‘we’ll settle this by cigarette. Maybelle!’
Settling something by cigarette was a new one on me. I was still scratching my head when the poster girl sauntered by with some kind of fancy stick, and propped herself against the corral gate.
Mayhew got up on his tiptoes again. ‘Gentlemen, let me introduce you to the beautiful Maybelle. As a means to settling this contest, Maybelle will light a cigarette and put it in the holder. She will then place the holder in her mouth. Our finalists Hollister Byrne and Levitt E. Valance will take turns apiece at shooting the cigarette. When one of them misses, and the other one hits, we’ll have our winner. May the best man win. Mister Valance, you’re first.’
Amidst a lot of whooping and cheering, Maybelle made quite a play of lighting a cigarette and fixing it in the holder. I waited till everyone hushed. Then I drew my gun. ‘Okay Maybelle,’ I said. ‘Put it in your mouth, I’m about ready to shoot.’
‘Mister, you sure know how to make a girl blush.’
Well, the crowd let out the biggest roar you ever heard. The whole damn proceedings turned to chaos as men collapsed with laughter. Some hunkered down and ended up rolling in the dirt. Maybelle laughed, Mayhew laughed, I laughed. Seemed everybody laughed but that miserable, sneering kid.
I tried again when everyone settled down. I thought I’d cleared my head but even as I squeezed the trigger, I got a tremor in my arm as the yippety shakes came back. Feared of hitting Maybelle, I pulled the shot, firing high and wide.
The kid had no such trouble. The surly cuss blasted the cigarette in half.
Win some; lose some, that’s how it goes. You shrug it off and walk away. Shrugging off an empty stomach ain’t so easy, but a good smoke helps. As folks drifted away, I wandered into the deserted corral and perched on the fence to roll myself a cigarette. A little peaceful solitude is good for the soul, only guilt got a hold on me when I remembered the old man who’d staked me, and no amount of tobacco could bring a change to that.
I’d been there an hour or so when a loud ‘Hey Mister!’ jarred me from my thoughts. It was Maybelle.
‘My husband would like to talk to you,’ she said.
A moment’s confusion passed when I realized she meant Theodore Mayhew. Till then I’d assumed they were father and daughter. How an old rascal like Mayhew had hooked himself a pretty little thing like her was none of my business, but I couldn’t help wondering anyway.
I found Mayhew outside the General Store, loading supplies on his wagon. Leastways I think he was. When I saw him grunting over a sack of flour, I couldn’t tell if he was lifting it or making love to it.
‘How would you like to earn some easy money?’ he said.
Hell, what sweet music. For the price of a drink and a full belly, I had that wagon loaded in no time. Course that wasn’t why he wanted to see me, but it earned me a steak and a beer at a place nearby, where Mayhew came up with a proposition.
‘We made an eight dollar profit today. Not bad for a day’s work, I know, but it could be so much more. I have the ballyhoo, Maybelle has the eyelashes. The one thing we don’t have is someone like you. Working together the three of us could be rich.’
Rich always gets my interest. I told him to go on.
‘I can see it now… me and Maybelle… any town, anywhere. After a few days of shaking the money tree, a stranger rides in on the day of the contest and takes the prize.’
‘Hmm, this stranger… his prize wouldn’t just happen to be a three way share in a whole pot of money, would it?’
‘You catch on fast, Mister Valance. I’ve had the idea for some time. I’ve just been waiting for the right man. Today I found him. You are that man. You’re the best I’ve seen.’
‘What about the kid? He won, remember?’
‘No, not him. His kind are too dangerous, and I know he wouldn’t have beaten you but for Maybelle.’
It ain’t the worst idea I’ve ever heard, a little sneaky maybe, but not so dishonest as to compromise my principles. Mayhew was good at his job. Maybelle was good at hers. They both knew how to hustle, but it was risky. I’d back myself against most men, but most ain’t all and there’s always a chance someone will get lucky. ‘What if we come across someone better than me?’ I asked.
‘I’ll fire you and hire him,’ he said.
I had to admire his pragmatism. I hoped he’d admire mine when I told him I needed a bath, a bed, and the means to pay my livery bill. I asked for a twenty dollar advance. He turned me down.
‘Make it five and we’ll shake on it,’ he said.
I leaned across the table and gave him the evil eye. ‘I’ll settle for fifteen. A nickel less and you can watch your ticket to riches walk right out of that door.’
We shook hands on fifteen.
Course I was bluffing. I never meant to squeeze Mayhew, but when providence deals you an ace, it deals it for a reason. Five dollars easily covered my mortal needs. The rest went to clearing my conscience. When I caught up with the old timer who’d staked me, I put a ten dollar bill in his hand. It sure warmed my heart to see him smile. I slept like a baby that night and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t all down to clean sheets and a soft pillow.
Next morning I was up with the birds. Bathed, shaved and smelling like roses, I saddled my horse at the livery and met up with the Mayhews.
Out on the trail, a spell on the wagon and a turn at the reins got me a real good look at Maybelle. Sure was a fine built woman. A little broad at the hip maybe, but that’s no bad thing. Ain’t nothing like a good loving woman with a few extra pounds, for giving as good as she gets. And her hair, well, she had the kind of hair that inspires a man to poetry. In big wavy tresses it tumbled right down to her shoulders, shiny as a silver dollar and black as a crow’s ass. I figured she couldn’t have been much older than thirty five, forty at most. Way too young for a man like Mayhew, who had to be sixty five or more. Strange woman though. One minute she’d be sweetness and light, next minute she’d clam up and stayed clammed for hours.
Course Mayhew had plenty to say. No conversation was ever gonna run dry with him around. Just got a little one sided, that’s all. I got no objection to someone telling me where they were born, where they were raised and the size of the eggs that were laid by their chickens. It all helps pass the time. And I got no objection to hearing about a life on the fair, an acrobat Pa, and a Ma who earned a living as a bearded lady, but I sure got sick of hearing nothing else from noon till sundown.
‘Goodnight Mister Valance,’ he said, when we turned in for the night. ‘I’m glad you came along, and not just because your presence gives us protection from hostiles and road agents and the like.’
I replied with a grunt as I pulled my hat down over my face. I lay there wondering what he did about hostiles and road agents before I came along. I figured he talked them to death.
It amused me some to find myself on the road to Oblivion. Ain’t much of a town but Mayhew said it was big enough to trial his plan. He and Maybelle would get to work right away, and have everything set and ready for when I rode in next day.
Well, it couldn’t have worked out better. Everything went just the way Mayhew planned it, easy as picking pork from a pig tree. A four dollar cut on twelve dollar pot should have been my first step on the road to riches, only I didn’t get a cent.
‘Twelve dollars less expenses is nine dollars,’ said Mayhew.
‘Mine. That leaves nine dollars to split three ways. Since I paid you fifteen in advance, I’ll credit you for three. You now owe me twelve dollars.’
We didn’t do so good in Avaro, or Ledger's Crossing, but Pine Ridge made up for that. Mariette went well too. We were getting better all the time and in Redwood… well, you never saw anything so slick. I mean real slick. I came out of there with dollar bills stuffed down my boots. Over the next few months we cleaned out every town twixt Coburg and Flat Rock. I even acquired myself a money belt. Imagine that, huh? Seemed we could do nothing wrong. Then came Bayfield.
‘I like the smell of this place,’ Mayhew said, when we got our first sight of the biggest town yet. ‘I can smell money, big money, the kind of money that’ll take three days to shake loose.’
Since he’d got everything right till then, I had no mind to quarrel. I just couldn’t see why I had to spend three days in the open when I could be having a good time in town and sleeping in a cozy hotel bed. ‘We can’t be seen together before the contest, you know that,’ Mayhew said. ‘Folks are liable to get mistrustful.’
‘Then we’ll pretend we don’t know each other,’ I said. ‘Less it pains you to pass me by.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself, Mister Valance. Pretending I don’t know you will present no difficulty whatsoever. All right, follow us into town if you must, but I insist you give us two hours clear. As of right now, not another word shall pass between us until the contest is over, is that understood?’
I replied with my best understanding smile.
Oh my, did I have a time. I just wish I could remember some of it. What happened after I hit town is a little hazy. Seems I got drunk as a skunk and stayed that way for three days. When I came to, I was laid out in the back of the wagon on the way to Juniper Springs. When I asked Maybelle about Bayfield, she just shook her head and told me to go back to sleep.
Mayhew was grumpy for a while. It ain’t like he didn’t make a few dollars; it just broke his heart to pay out the prize money. Seems he’d fired me as soon as the contest was over and was gonna move on without me till Maybelle talked him round. ‘One more chance and that’s all you’re getting,’ he said, when he lowered himself to speak to me again.
Since the ways of a woman have bamboozled man for two thousand years, I don’t readily subject myself to sufferance, but I couldn’t help wondering why Maybelle saved me from getting fired. I couldn’t work her out. Some days she was as nice as pie. Other days she hardly spoke at all. Then just when I’d get to thinking she hated my guts, she’d be touching my arm or my shoulder or something while laughing and joking. I wondered about that, too. Partial as I am to a lady’s attentions, it discomforts me to receive them in front of a lady’s husband, but if Mayhew minded, he never said. Truth is I don’t think he even noticed.
At Juniper Springs I redeemed myself. It ain’t modest to say so, I know, but I blasted everyone out of sight. Maybelle was all smiles, and I even got a slap on the back from Mayhew. Hell, I must have been good.
Two days out of Juniper Springs, Maybelle went down with the fever. A day later Mayhew got it. Stuck in the middle of nowhere I made camp and went looking for weeds. Sounds dumb, I know. Reckon I’d think so too if I’d never met Old Dan Wise. Must be twenty years or more since Dan taught me about weeds, but I’ve never forgotten. Nobody knew weeds better than Dan.
A potion of boiled fireweed and skunkbush berries don’t smell so good. Don’t taste so good either, but it's good for treating a fever. I got Maybelle to take a few sips before she fell asleep again. Mayhew though, just wasn’t for drinking.
‘C’mon, this’ll do you good,’ I said.
The suspicious cuss wouldn’t touch a drop till he’d seen me try it first and even then he wasn’t satisfied. I must have drunk half a mug of that stuff before he got to trusting me. I got him back though. Just as soon as he put the mug to his lips I pinched the little bastard’s nose and poured it down his throat till he passed out.
Sitting by the fire that night I got to thinking they’d take their medicine better if it was mixed with something tasty. Sugar’s fine, only it ain’t got the nutrients sick people need. Same goes for coffee. Since the tastiest, most nutritious thing I can cook is critter soup, I went and found me a critter and boiled it up with weed and berries. Sneaky, I know, but it had to be done. I spoon fed them a mixture of hot soup and potion three times a day, with no complaints. Other than keeping a fire going and making sure they were warm and comfortable, that’s about all I could do.
Two, maybe three days later I heard Mayhew shouting. I ran to the wagon and found him sitting up, sweat rolling down his face. ‘A hundred dollars! We’ll offer a prize of a hundred dollars!’ he said.
‘Settle down Theodore, you’re fever crazy,’ I said. Seemed the poor fella was out of his mind. I hushed him and turned his pillow, and got him to lie down while I cooled his brow with water. He was soon sleeping again. Then I noticed Maybelle, eyes wide open, smiling at me. I asked her if she was fever crazy too.
She shook her head and said ‘not anymore.’
‘How are you feeling?’
‘A little weak, but I’m fine, I think.’
Maybelle joined me for coffee. We talked awhile, little things mostly. Then she went all soft and womanly on me, leaning in close and slipping her arm around mine.
‘What are you looking for, Valance?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘What are you looking for, in life?’
Hell, I didn’t know what to say. When women talk soft and start asking questions, I’m inclined to get suspicious. There’s no telling where the trip wire is.
‘Me? I’m looking for nothing.’
‘Then what are you running from?’
‘Who says I’m running?’
‘My Pa used to say half the world’s looking for something. The other half is running from something. So, if you’re not looking for something, what are you running from?’
Like I said, you never can tell where the trip wire is. After lighting a cigarette, I told her the sorry truth about why I had to leave Blogsville.
‘And the sheriff made you leave town?’
‘That’s awful,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry. Did… did you leave a woman behind?’
A few women came to mind, but another ‘yup’ saved things getting complicated.
‘Is she waiting for you?’
‘I don’t know, maybe,’ I said, keeping my mind on Housty. ‘Could be she’s gazing into the hills right now, just yearning for the day I come home. Wherever I go, wherever I stray, it comforts me greatly to think she’s keeping vigil with a warm heart and a frying pan.’
Well, Maybelle went and did it again. She went all silent on me. When I asked if she was all right, she didn’t reply. She just upped and ran off. Where she went I don’t know. Didn’t much care either. When God made woman he made the most beautiful thing in creation. Too bad he ruined a good day’s work by giving her a contrary mind. Course I worried some, especially when she didn’t show up till after dark. Even then, I only knew she was back when I heard her fixing supper. I had it in mind to ask if she was okay, but I let her be. I figured she’d come round in her own time. It paid off, too. A silent wish worked for once when she brought me some beans and cornbread. Course I was delighted. If her face hadn’t been as long as an undertaker’s coat I’d have said so. Instead, I just thanked her politely and took to eating.
Maybelle seemed fine enough next morning. Quiet maybe, but she took a mug of coffee while brushing her hair. Mayhew was back on his feet too, complaining about a bad taste in his mouth. Bad taste or not, it didn’t stop him talking. Seemed the fever had gone but not the notion of a hundred dollar prize.
‘Why the blazes would you offer a hundred dollars?’ I asked.
‘So I can charge a dollar a time,’ he said, with a smile as wide as his little fat face.
I laughed and told him he was loco. ‘That’s a day’s pay to most men,’ I said. ‘And men don’t part with a day’s pay so easy.’
If I thought I’d killed the idea, I thought wrong. Mayhew wasn’t letting go. While he set to some hard thinking, I threw another log on the fire and boiled some fresh coffee.
‘Five hundred dollars! They’ll pay a dollar for that!’
‘Are you kidding?’ What if someone outshoots me?’
‘They won’t if you keep off the booze. Men sell their souls for that kind of money. They’ll come from miles around. If we hit the big towns and cities we’ll make a thousand dollars a time, and every cent of it will be ours if you just stay away from whiskey. Carson City isn’t so far. We could be there in three weeks, maybe less if we cross the Winnemucca plain.’
‘We can’t go that way, that’s Paiute country.’
‘Why not? They’ve never given me any trouble.’
‘Well, could be there’s an old Injun chief out there with a long memory and a grudge.’
Mayhew gave me one of his suspicious looks. ‘What kind of grudge?’
‘Some years ago Chief Bad Face gave me a hatful of gold for some rifles. We sealed the deal with firewater.’
‘I never got around to going back with the rifles.’
‘I see. Then we’ll stay south of Winnemucca and head for Fort Jackson.’
‘Nope, can’t go there.’
‘Why? Has some old army colonel got a grudge against you, too?’
‘No, but a major with a beautiful daughter might. His wife was pretty special, too.’
‘I won’t trouble myself to ask why. If you’ll forgive me saying so Mister Valance, you’re a man with a colorful past.’
‘I guess that’s one way of putting it.’
‘Putting it seems most appropriate. However, that is your business. Now, if there’s a way of getting to Carson City without endangering your scalp, your accoutrements or your general wellbeing, perhaps you’d care to share it?’
I liked Mayhew, but he sure knew how to make me squirm. I proposed that we went north to Sweetlove. That’d take us clear of Paiute territory. From there we could move west to Carson City.
Mayhew didn’t like the idea. He didn’t say so, but he didn’t have to. I heard it in the silence when he traded anxious glances with Maybelle. I threw them a rope. ‘Or we could backtrack a little and circle around Fort Jackson.’
A showman all his life, Theodore Mayhew knew what he was doing. It’s just when greed gets hold of a man, he takes risks he don’t need to. To my mind a five hundred dollar prize is an invitation to trouble and with every gunslinger for miles likely to take part, my chances of winning were…well, no matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t help thinking a small slice of something was better than a big slice of nothing with a cherry on top. Not Mayhew, he got more excited with each passing day. ‘I’ll get posters printed, lots of them. I’ll hang them all over town,’ he said. ‘Tickets too, we’ll sell them all week. Hot diggety, we’ll draw the biggest crowd Carson City has ever seen!’
I kept my thoughts to myself. Ain’t that I begrudged the little fella his hopes and expectations, I just didn’t care for the weight being heaped on my shoulders. I didn’t realize how much it was playing on my mind till I went bathing in the creek.
I’d been there some time, just cooling in the water and thinking things through, when Maybelle came by.
‘Do you mind if I move these?’ Maybelle didn’t wait for an answer. She just tossed my clothes to the ground and sat on the rock where I’d left them. ‘You’ve been out here so long I was getting worried about you.’
The last thing I needed right then was a moody woman. Truth is I wasn’t in the best of moods myself. Could be I was a mite fractious, even.
‘Is something wrong?’
‘Are you sure? You’ve been awful quiet these past few days.’
‘Nope, nothing’s wrong, leastways nothing that a bottle of whiskey and a dirty woman couldn’t put right.’
Maybelle laughed. I guess that calmed me some. I told her what was on my mind. When I’d done unloading my troubles, she told me not to worry. ‘You’ll win; I’ll make sure of it. Just like I did in Pine Ridge when I called you for six when you’d only hit five,’ she said. Quicker than I could raise my eyebrows, a wicked smile spread across her face. ‘I’m not the little lady you think I am,’ she said.
Since she’d never once taken her eyes off my hoopladoopla, I’d already come to that conclusion.
‘Water’s nice and clear, isn’t it?’
‘You shouldn’t be looking,’ I said.
‘I never saw one that big before.’
Lord, I was sorely tempted but with Mayhew around somewhere, I figured I’d better move fast and get my clothes on before the devil took a bow and led me astray.
‘Well, I never had you down as the bashful kind,’ said Maybelle, when I’d tucked everything in and buttoned up.
‘Yup, Mister Bashful, that’s me.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
Hell, I didn’t believe it either, but every dog has its day and once in a while my head overrules my pants. ‘Believe what you like,’ I said. ‘Won’t matter anyway, if you’re gonna run along now and ignore me for the rest of the day.’
Maybelle smiled again. Then she got up on tippy toes and kissed my cheek.
‘What was that for?’
‘For being so mean to you. I’m sorry.’
‘S’okay, if anyone ought to say sorry it’s me, I can be a prickly cuss sometimes. But while you’re talking, you can tell me something. What are you running from?’
‘Who says I’m running?’
‘Half the world’s looking for something, you said. I see how that applies to Mayhew, but not you. That makes you a runner, so suppose you tell me what you’re running from.’
Maybelle lowered her head. Seemed another flounce was coming. Then I realized she was shaking. When she found her voice again she talked slow, real painful slow.
‘A man. A man who’ll kill me if he ever finds me.’
‘Because that’s the kind of man he is.’
‘Has this got anything to do with Sweetlove?’
‘How long have you been running?’
‘Almost a year.’
‘You really think he’s still looking for you?’
‘I know he is. Ain’t a day goes by that I don’t get the feeling he’s out there watching me. Every night I lie awake, scared I’ll open my eyes in the morning and see him standing there.’
‘Couldn’t you have gone to the sheriff or something?’
Maybelle shook her head. She said something about a lawless town. For a terrible moment I thought she was gonna cry. Hell, I hate seeing women cry. Ain’t that I’m unsympathetic; it’s just that a woman’s tears always make me feel guilty, even when I ain’t to blame. Well, she didn’t cry, but she sure got angry. And the words she used in her hate for that man… well, she sure didn’t learn them in Sunday school.
I kept a closer eye on Maybelle over the next few days. Her being a fine built woman had nothing to do with it, though I guess it helped some, especially when it took her mind to bathe in a spring. ‘Please, I’d feel safer if you came along,’ she said.
‘But I expect you to behave like a gentleman,’ she said when we got there.
I gave her my word as a gentleman. Then like a good gentleman I peeped through my fingers.
It must be a terrible thing to live in fear for so long: scared of dying; scared of trusting; scared of living. It explained a few things; not least the Maybelle had been till then. Confiding in me helped, I reckon. Leastways she seemed more relaxed. Sure, she got a little jumpy sometimes, but a steady hand and a soft word soon pulled her through. Nobody was gonna harm her while I was around, though why anyone should want her dead had me flummoxed. I just couldn’t make sense of it. Then I got to wondering how she and Mayhew came together, and when. Something wasn’t right. They just didn’t act like a married couple – for one thing they were too darn nice to each other. And they took care of their own money. And they didn’t sleep together. Hell, they didn’t even bathe together. Yup, it all seemed mighty strange.
Pushing a wagon across miles of nowhere ain’t much fun. Once in a while you might see something interesting. Most days you see nothing but the back end of two stubborn horses. On days like that my mind always wandered to thoughts of home. I don’t know why, but I always thought of Miss JJ and Miss April.
A month after leaving Juniper Springs we crossed the Carson River. Late that afternoon, high on a hill above Eagle Valley, Mayhew did a jig.
‘Look at it, just look at it!’ he said. ‘There must be five thousand people down there! We’re gonna be rich, what did I tell you? We’re gonna be rich!’
I looked. Standing big and tall, Carson City stretched as far as the eye could see. From the railroad to the east, to the workings of the Comstock Silver Mine on the far side of the valley, it sure was a wonderful sight.
Course me and Mayhew had another squabble when he said I’d have to stay out in the hills till Saturday.
‘Are you kidding? Today’s Monday. Saturday’s five days away.’
‘Indeed it is, Mister Valance. Well done, I owe you an apology. You’re a lot smarter than I give you credit for.’
‘Putting aside the fact that I ain’t had a drink for a month and I’m all out of tobacco, what am I supposed to do till then?’
‘How about some shooting practice?’
Hell, that Mayhew sure knew how to get me riled. Maybelle settled things with a quiet supplication. ‘Please, Theodore. I’d feel a lot safer if he came with us.’
Mayhew backed off, but he wasn’t going down without a fight. ‘All right!’ he said. ‘But stay out here until tomorrow! And stay out of our way till the contest. And stay away from liquor, you hear?’
I heard, loud and clear. Just as soon as the puffed up little toad had done jabbing his finger in my face, I got my bedroll and saddle from the wagon, and unhitched my horse.
I watched the wagon getting smaller and smaller until it vanished in the haze at the bottom of the valley. Then I settled down for some rest. I figured I’d sneak down there at sundown and get myself a steak; and some tobacco; and maybe a drink or two before finding a bed for the night.
Sometime after midnight I awoke with the shivers. Since it was too dang blasted late to go anywhere, and too dark to see anything anyhow, I crawled over to my horse and spent the rest of the night sleeping back to back with the big lummox.
I never saw a train before. Sure was a mighty fine sight. Never saw a Chinee either, but in Carson City, I was seeing them everywhere I turned. Saw a couple of Chinee women, too. I’ve always wondered if it’s true what they say about them.
Mayhew hadn’t wasted any time. The first thing I saw when I came out of the livery was the stage…
And when I got some tobacco…
And went for a bite to eat…
Hell, those posters were everywhere. They even had them in the cathouse…
…so I heard.
Wherever I went, everybody was talking about the shooting contest. At the Silver Spur Saloon on the edge of town the barflies were already picking their winners, with many laying bets on the local heroes. Since the fastest gun in the west lives in just about every town I’ve ever been in, I paid little heed, though I couldn't help overhearing. Someone called Frank Brogan was getting a lot of backing. Another name mentioned was Hollister Byrne. My ears pricked up when I heard the name. As familiar as it sounded, I just couldn’t place it.
It was late in the afternoon when I left the saloon. With my obligation to Mayhew in mind, I resisted the temptation of another bottle and went for a bath…
…and felt a whole lot better for it. Got my clothes washed, too. Since I was just a shave and a haircut away from being a new man, I went looking for a barbershop. Only I found myself outside the cathouse ag… I mean I found myself outside the cathouse and…
…well, I ended up staying the night. A lot of folks frown upon my sinful ways, I know, but I never spent two dollars better. I don’t know what time I got to sleep but when I did; I slept like a baby till two o’clock the next day.
A cigarette and a cup of coffee set me up fine for a stroll in the sunshine. With little to do but stay out of trouble, I stopped by at the gunsmiths for some ammunition. I figured a hundred bullets would cover a couple of hours practice and leave plenty over for the contest. The man behind the counter looked real pleased to see me. He called me Sir too, I liked that. I guess I don’t get sirred much.
‘There you are Sir, a hundred cartridges for a Colt 45. That’ll be twenty dollars.’
‘Someone making bullets in gold now? I’ve never known hundreds go for more than ten.’
‘They do in this store when there’s a shooting contest on. Twenty dollars, that’s the price.’
‘Forget it, I don’t need that many. I’ll take forty.’
‘That’ll be ten dollars.’
‘Aww, c’mon, that can’t be right. If twenty buys a hundred then...’
‘Forty comes without discount. Take it or leave it.’
Forty also came without a Sir, I noticed. I gave the twisting weasel his ten dollars. Hell, I couldn’t wait to see Mayhew’s face when I tried claiming that on expenses.
I’d no sooner got outside when I heard a familiar voice down the street.
I know I promised to stay clear, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t sneak along the sidewalk and watch for a while.
A little while later I moseyed on down the street…
…and came to a big ol’ saloon. Even though Mayhew was just a hundred yards away, I was sorely tempted. Weren’t one of those spit and sawdust saloons either, but a real fancy place with glass in every window and a big sign over the door – The Lucky Stranger. If that ain’t an omen, I don’t know what is. It didn’t matter that some fool was playing that dang blasted Dem Golden Slippers on the piano. I had time on my hands and a thirst in need of a slaking.
I don’t mind a beer now and then. Besides wetting your insides, it clears the way for the whiskey to trickle down. Well, after a beer and a cigarette at a table in corner, I was ready for some serious trickling. I went to the bar and called for a bottle, paying no mind to a bunch of young bucks further along the bar.
The bartender set the bottle down with a heavy thud. ‘You in town for the contest, Mister?’
‘Maybe,’ was all I could say, as I shot him a dirty look. I know he was only being friendly, but he didn’t have to talk so loud. I only wanted a drink, not an invite to tell the whole world my business.
‘Hey, Mister!’ one of the bucks shouted, a tall kid with a big nose and an even bigger mouth. ‘You ain’t got a chance! Ain’t that so, Hollis?’
The one he called Hollis was sitting on a stool with his back to me. Slowly, he got to his feet and turned around. ‘Who? Him?’ He shook his head. ‘No, he ain’t got a chance.’
I knew him right away. Hollister Byrne, backed by many to win the shooting contest, was the same miserable cuss who’d looked down his nose at me in Stirrup Creek. I gave the varmint a good long stare.
‘You remember me, don’t you?’ he said. ‘Yeah, you remember. I remember you, you’re a man called Valance. I knew it was you the minute you walked in here. I recognized the smell.’
Course his friends loved that. While they pissed their pants laughing, Mister Big Man Byrne stuck his thumbs in his belt and came forward all a swagger. In words aimed at me he talked to his buddies. ‘Mister Valance ain’t bad with a gun. Truth is he’s pretty good. I know he can shoot straight. I just don’t know how fast he is.’
I had a pretty good idea what was coming next and it wasn’t the darned sheriff. I’ve never known a lawman turn up at the right time yet.
‘Think you can take me, Valance? Hey, look at me when I’m talking to you.’
‘Know what I think Hollis? He’s yeller!’
‘Yeah, he’s yeller!’
The harder Byrne and his buddies pushed, the more I backed off. Sure, I was boiling up inside, but I was obliged to hold everything in. Well, you should have heard them laugh when I skulked out of there with my tail between my legs. Walking away don’t come easy to a man. A piece of him dies. It’s a lousy feeling, and it sure hurt me bad. Seemed I’d left my balls on the bar with my whiskey.
I didn’t trouble myself to drink anyplace else. It ain’t like I didn’t need one, smarting the way I was, but I figured temperance was the only way I’d make it through till Saturday. Meantime, the only way I was gonna make it through the next hour was to keep walking.
At the quietest place in Carson City, I stopped walking. Since a cemetery is about as peaceful as peaceful gets, I had no need to go any further. For the next few hours I sat rolling cigarettes, and brooding. Yup, I’ll admit it, I was hurting bad. In my heart I wanted to go back and teach those young pups some manners, but my head kept telling me to hold fire. Saturday would come round soon enough and as soon the shooting contest was over… well, I knew where I’d be heading.
Come sundown I felt little better, but I figured I’d better make a move. Silent company is fine by day, but if anything scares me more than an Irishwoman with a frying pan, it’s a bone yard at night.
I wandered back into town, wanting nothing but a clean bed and fresh sheets. The first place I came to had no rooms to spare.
‘Sorry Mister. All rooms are taken. We’re busy right now with folks staying over for the shooting contest.’
I got the same answer at the next place I stopped at, too.
I finished up at the big hotel on the main street. What the hell, I deserved a little comfort. If staying there meant paying more then it meant paying more. Two signatures in the book caught my eye when I checked in – Mr. Theodore Mayhew and his wife Mrs. Maybelle Mayhew. Well, what a surprise. Separate rooms, too. Course that was no surprise at all.
‘Room thirteen, left at the top of the stairs.’
I might have known Mayhew would have nothing but the best. Yup, I might have known. You never saw him sleeping under the stars with a horse. Stay away, he said. And I had. Ain’t my fault I finished up in the same hotel.
And it ain’t my fault I finished up spending the night with Maybelle. Since me and her were getting along fine by then, and since nobody else was around, I could hardly decline when she saw me at the top of the stairs and beckoned me to her room. For a sociable fella like me, spreading a little happiness comes naturally.
Every woman has her needs and me, I’m an obliging fella. After fooling around some it wasn’t long before we were horizontally acquainted and going for glory. I ain’t one for boasting but when Maybelle let out a yell I thought it was business as usual. Hell, how was I to know Mayhew had walked in? It ain’t the first time I’ve been caught bare assed with a married woman. I knew what to expect. A bullet in the ass is customary, but as I tensed up and listened for the click of a gun, the only sound I heard was an apologetic Mayhew hurrying out of the door. Now what kind of husband does that?
When we got around to pillow talk, Mrs. Mayhew told me quite a tale…
‘When Ma died giving birth to me, Pa raised me on his own. Wasn’t easy for him or me, but Pa never stopped trying. Between the lean times and the hard times, he stretched the good times as far as he could. Then when Pa died a couple of years ago, a man called Albie Farrell came to see me. I didn’t know him so well; I just knew he was a big man in Sweetlove. He said Pa owed him a lot of money. I don’t know if that was true, but grieving for Pa and alone with no kin, I let him talk me into turning over our spread in payment. In return he said he’d look after me and give me a job. Well, he put me to work in the saloon. The job didn’t pay so good but I had my own room and it was fun meeting people and talking to other girls. Albie ran lots of things in Sweetlove, including the whorehouse. A lot of his girls earned extra money there, but not me. I was Albie’s girl. I was special to him. But then he changed. He made me do things I didn’t want to do. And that’s when the beatings started.’
‘Couldn’t you have left town?’
‘I dreamt of nothing else. The one time I tried, Albie dragged me by the hair and kicked me half to death. From that day on I became his property.’
‘Then a funny little man came to town. That was Theodore, selling pots and pans from his wagon. Before the day was out I found him unconscious in the street and ran for Doc. Poor Theodore, he’d been beaten and robbed. Doc wasn’t sure he’d pull through, but Theodore’s a fighter. I stopped by every day to see how he was. In little more than a week he was sitting up in bed and making new plans. It was wonderful to see him looking so well.’
‘He’s a stubborn little cuss, I’ll give him that.’
‘Theodore said he was moving on to better things. Well, when he said he’d be requiring an assistant my heart just skipped a beat. I guess Theodore saw my interest. He asked me if I’d like to go with him. I said I’d love to, but first I had to tell him about Albie.’
‘So what did Theodore say?’
‘About Albie? Nothing, he just told me to name the time and place, and he’d be there. Oh, I was so nervous and excited. After praying for the day I could have gone right then, but we decided to wait overnight and take off at sunrise. So that’s what we did. Theodore was waiting for me behind the saloon. I just skipped into the back of the wagon and away we went.’
‘And you’ve been together ever since?’
‘Yes, ever since. Moving from town to town suits me fine. I don’t like being in one place too long.’
‘That figures. But if Albie Farrell’s the man you’re running from, I don’t get it. I can see how you might have hurt his pride, but that’s no reason for him wanting you dead.’
‘Can you keep a secret?’
‘Okay… before I left I stole a thousand dollars. And I set fire to the saloon.’
‘I shouldn’t have done it, I know, but running away didn’t seem enough. I wanted to hit back at him. I told you I’m not the little lady you think I am, didn’t I?’
‘Yup, you did. Hmm, I guess he had it coming. And you’re sure he’s trailing you?’
‘Oh yes. I saw him in Hosanna, just as we were leaving for Stirrup Creek. Theodore was looking for someone to join us anyway, and with me being so worried… well, that’s when you came along.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me all this when I signed on?’
‘You were good with gun, that’s all I knew. I wasn’t to know I could trust you.’
‘I guess not. What about Theodore?’
‘Theodore knew about the fire, he saw the smoke. I told him about the money later. I knew he wouldn’t tell anyone.’
‘He’s very loyal to you.’
‘I know. Theodore’s a sweetie, and real smart.’
‘Is that why you married him?’
Maybelle laughed. ‘We’re not married, as I’m sure you already know. I just changed my name so I’d be harder to find. Theodore said finding me would be harder still if we pretended we were married, and it’d spare me the attentions of drunks and no goods.’
‘That’s what he thought, huh? So you became Mrs. Mayhew. What about Maybelle – is that your real name?’
‘No, my real name is Beulah. Like it?’
‘It’s all right, but I like Maybelle better. You look like a Maybelle. You sure don’t look like a Mayhew though. Could be Theodore wishes you were married. Have you ever thought about that?’
‘I have. He tried to kiss me once. I might have hurt his feelings when I brushed him off. Theodore’s such a sweet, kind, thoughtful man and I am fond of him, but that’s as far as it goes. When we first met I saw him as the little man who wouldn’t lie down. He reminded me of my Pa. Still does. But I do think a lot of him, and I know he thinks an awful lot of me.’
‘That’s ‘cause there’s an awful lot of you to think of,’ I said, giving her ass a slap.
Maybelle rolled into my arms and giggled as she slid her hand under the blanket. ‘There’s a lot of you too, Mister Valance. You know what kind of man I like? I like a man that can protect a girl, a man that can stand tall and strong…’
Hell, I was standing taller and stronger by the second.
‘I’ve been running scared for so long, but when I’m with you, I feel alive again. You make me feel…’
Maybelle knew how to make me feel good too, and it weren’t all down to sweet talk. Under the blanket she’d palmed an ace and was shuffling the pack. Well, since she had a real soothing way with words, I just lay back and relaxed. The harder she shuffled, the huskier her voice got, and when my breathing got heavier, she shuffled harder still. Come time to deal, I whispered something dirty in her ear.
Maybelle smiled at me. ‘Mister,’ she said. ‘You sure know how to make a girl blush.’
Maybelle was gone when I woke in the morning. Out banging the drum with Mayhew somewhere, I figured. Since my gut was growling like an angry bear, I had no mind to laze around. I threw my duds on and went for something to eat.
You never saw so many people in one place. For every person leaving town, six were riding in, and with so many men packing a gun, it seemed Lady Luck was ready to smile. In two days we’d be rich. All I had to do was stay out of trouble.
A plate of steak and onions with potatoes and plenty of gravy set me up fine. After a cigarette and a cup of coffee, I was on my way, still trying to work out how rich I’d be come Saturday. Scratching my whiskers didn’t help, but it left an itch that reminded me to get along to the barbershop for an overdue shave and a haircut.
Every silver lining has a cloud. I was waiting my turn in the barber’s chair when I heard a ruckus outside.
‘Sounds like someone’s getting a good hiding,’ said the barber.
Since there were only three of us in the place, and one of those was sitting in the chair with a razor at this throat, I felt obliged to speak up. ‘Yup,’ I said, as it surely did sound like someone was getting a hiding. Young men, I guessed, being as they were loud and angry. Not that it was any business of mine. Then something slammed against the door, so hard that the whole damn place shook. I figured I’d better take a look.
I found a little Chinee slumped in the doorway. Poor fella didn’t look so good. Reckon he’d have looked a whole lot worse too, if I hadn’t stepped over him and backed off two young jaspers that were kicking him. Course they didn’t take kindly to having their fun interrupted. Not by me, that’s for sure.
‘Hey Willy, do you know who this is? It’s the coward that came in the saloon yesterday!’
‘The one that crawled out on his belly?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘Hey Mister Coward, you just made a big mistake.’
Willy made a bigger mistake when he took a swing at me. If he didn’t know it when I snatched his wrist and back-slammed my elbow into his mouth, he sure knew it when he fell to the ground, coughing blood and spitting teeth. His friend made a mistake too, in reaching for his gun, though he had the good sense to freeze when he saw my gun drawn and ready to fire.
‘Pride ain’t worth getting killed for, kid. Just turn around and walk away. Go on, walk away and there’ll be no more trouble.’
‘H-Hollis ain’t gonna like this. He’s got eight notches on his gun already. He’ll get you for sure.’
‘Maybe, now turn around and start walking, and take Toothless with you.’
For all the hate in his eyes the kid saw sense. He helped his friend to his feet and led him across the street.
I asked the little Chinee if he was all right. Ain’t sure what he said, but he didn’t look so bad once he’d dusted himself down. Other than a split lip, I figured he’d suffered little more than a bruising.
The half shaven man came out of the barbershop and shook my hand. The barber followed. He shook my hand and offered me a free haircut and shave. ‘I’d consider it an honor,’ he said. I declined. Course I thanked him politely, but I had other concerns by then. Getting away from there being the first one.
Keeping out of trouble in Carson City ain’t easy, and that’s a fact. Since my own little rain cloud was tracking me everywhere, I got to thinking I should stay in my hotel room till Saturday. I was still chewing on the notion when I came to a backstreet bar. Over a bottle of whiskey I thought about it some more. By the time the bottle was empty, I’d made up my mind. I’d go back to the hotel and stay there till the contest.
The smart way back to the hotel was the long way. A quicker way meant passing The Lucky Stranger saloon. Caught in two minds, I lit a cigarette as an aid to contemplation. Well, when the whiskey proposed the quicker way and my heart seconded the motion, my legs just naturally followed.
I got not regrets about that. Truth is it felt good to walk with my head high, and I sure walked tall when I passed The Lucky Stranger. And I walked real slow.
I didn’t get far.
Someone called my name. I turned around. Surprise surprise, it was Byrne. His buddies right behind him, but they soon peeled off when I moved to the center of the street.
As folks scattered, Byrne stepped forward a pace. I matched him. Then Byrne took another pace forward and gave me that sneer of his. My, did he think he was something, standing there all high and mighty with his thumbs tucked into his belt. Though he carried two guns, I figured his left was just for show. Having seen him shoot and drink, I kept my eyes glued to his right hand.
Forget that stuff about waiting for the other fella to draw first. Live by the code of the west and there’s a good chance you’ll die by it. The code of the Valance suits me better. I made up my mind that as soon as Byrne slipped his thumbs from his belt, I’d let him have it…
Byrne dropped to his knees. Cradling his right arm with his left, he cried out in pain. Hell, I never fired a better shot. I’d put a hole clean through his right hand. Then someone poked a gun in my back.
‘Drop it, Mister.’
Wouldn’t you know it, whenever you need a lawman there’s never one around, and when you don’t need one…
‘Attempted murder’ the marshal said. I told him I never intended killing anyone. I was just defending myself, that’s all. A man’s got a right to defend himself. ‘Tell it to the judge,’ he said.
A night in the calaboose did nothing for my peace of mind, or my spine. On a bone hard mattress without a pillow, I hardly slept a wink. I just lay there looking up at them bars. Come Friday morning I was aching all over. Course that was the least of my problems, a bigger headache was wondering how I’d get out of there for the contest. I just wished there was some way of contacting Mayhew.
Well, who should come wandering into marshal’s office that afternoon but Mayhew himself. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I don’t know how he knew I was there, but was I glad to see him. Only he hadn’t come to see me at all, he’d come to see the marshal.
‘Oh, howdy Mr. Mayhew. Your posters are ready. Hold on, I’ll get them for you.’
Seemed they’d met before. By the sound of it Mayhew had dropped by earlier in the week and now the marshal was making good a promise to give him some old wanted posters.
‘Hey, Theodore!’ I yelled.
Mayhew turned pale when he saw me behind bars.
'You two know each other?' the marshal asked.
'N-no, we don’t,’ Mayhew spluttered. Then the little jasper pulled on his lapels and puffed himself up. ‘Though it’s possible he might know me. As a well traveled man of fine standing I have, on occasion, suffered the attention of shiftless ne’er do wells, though I certainly don’t recall this one. What’s he in jail for, anyway?’
‘Attempted murder,’ said the marshal.
Mayhew’s chin almost hit the floor.
I figured I’d better say something quick. ‘Oh c’mon Marshal, that sneering little runt was gonna kill me. I had to defend myself.’
Course I’d told the marshal that a hundred times already, but I needed to let Mayhew know what had happened. Then the two of them hushed up and started talking quietly. I watched them close. Straining my ears did no good at all; I couldn’t hear a damn thing. Then they went outside. When the marshal returned, he returned alone. If Mayhew had a trick up his sleeve, I hoped he’d play it soon. Till then I could only wait.
Saturday came and Saturday went. With it went the shooting contest. Right up till noon I’d hoped Mayhew would get me out, but when the marshal locked the door behind him and went off to the contest himself, I knew it wasn’t to be. I’d let myself down yet again. Seemed everything Sheriff Rogers ever said about me was true. Worse still, I’d let Mayhew and Maybelle down, and I sure felt bad about that.
Come Sunday, I knew Mayhew and Maybelle would be moving on. I kept thinking about the words I’d use to say how sorry I was, when they came to say goodbye. When nobody came, I got to wondering if they were still in town. Could be they were still working on ways of getting me out. At suppertime I asked the marshal if he’d seen them. He shook his head.
Monday morning was just the same. Nobody came. At least the marshal was more sociable. He brought me an extra cup of coffee and asked me if I could tell the time. When I said I could, he said ‘see that clock on the wall over my desk? When it gets to two o’clock , give me a yell.’
For two hours and thirty eight minutes I stared at that clock. Weren't like I had anything better to do. Come yelling time, the marshal came to my cell jangling a bunch of keys. Hell, I was so confused when he unlocked the cell and told me to come on out, I just stood there. Course I moved pretty fast when he told me a second time. ‘C’mon, before I change my mind and lock you in again.’
After I’d signed for my things, the marshal tossed me my gun belt.
‘You said you came to Carson City for the shooting contest, right?’
‘And now that it’s over, you’ve no further business here, right?’
‘So you’ll be leaving just as fast as you can get on your horse?’
‘Well, sure, though I might just pay my hotel bill first. I appreciate you letting me go Marshal, but I don’t get it. I thought I had to see a judge?’
‘What do we need a judge for? There’s no case to answer.’
‘Then you believe me now?’
‘I believed you all along. I’m no fool; I know what Byrne and his friends are like. I heard what happened at the barbershop too, and I can’t say it displeased me. It’s about time those young ‘uns were taken down a notch, but it’s my job to keep the peace around here and keeping you locked up has made my job a whole lot easier. I don’t expect your thanks for that but take it from me; blowing Byrne’s hand off wouldn’t have been the end of it.’
I couldn’t argue with the marshal’s reasoning. Didn’t matter much anyhow, now the contest was over and done. I just needed to know if Mayhew was still in town. I asked the marshal...
‘What do you want to know for? Ain’t fixing to bother Mrs. Mayhew again, are you? That’s surprised you, ain’t it? Yeah, I know all about that, too. Mister Mayhew told me, poor man. There’s no law against it but I reckon there ought to be. But for your philandering I’d have turned you loose yesterday. Keeping you in jail for another twenty four hours was the least I could do.’
I could hardly believe what I was hearing.
‘Anyway, they’re long gone now and they’ve got help riding with them, so take my advice and stay away from them.’
‘What kind of help?’
‘Frank Brogan the fastest gun in the west, that’s what kind of help. Ever heard of him?’
‘You might have, if you hadn’t been stuck in here. He’s the man who won the shooting contest. That reminds me…’
The marshal pulled a note from his pocket. ‘Mister Mayhew asked me to give you this.’
I came out of the marshal’s office with my head in a daze. What I’d heard was plain and clear, though it sure was hard to swallow. Mayhew was always good for a trick, but I never expected that. Then I looked at the note the marshal had given me.
Yup, I’d been hornswoggled. Mayhew must have cut a deal with Brogan. Before or after the contest is anyone’s guess.
After saddling my horse at the livery, I rode out without looking back. With so much on my mind, I was high on the hill overlooking the valley before I remembered my hotel bill. Course I didn’t fret too much about that. I’d checked in as Cheyenne Jones, anyhow.
I stayed on top of that hill for a while, just gazing into the valley, thinking things through. I had a pretty good idea where Mayhew and Maybelle were bound – Reno ain’t thirty miles to the north. Traveling in a wagon they wouldn’t have got far, even with a day’s start, but I had no mind to catch up. Win some; lose some, that’s how it goes. You shrug it off and walk away.
It saddened me some to turn my horse around and head south. The thought of never seeing Maybelle again sucked something out of me. I knew I’d miss her. As for Mayhew, well, I smiled when I thought of him hopping up and down and scolding me. I’d miss that little jasper, too.
That night on the prairie I was drawn like a moth to a campfire. ‘Rider coming in,’ I hollered.
A lone man with a rifle quizzed me. After making sure I wasn’t a scavenger, he invited me for coffee. Well, we talked some, and holy shinbones, did he have a tale to tell.
‘You say you just left Carson City? Did you see or hear tell of a shooting contest while you were there?’
‘Sure, but you’re too late. They held that on Saturday.’
‘Pity, I was hoping to take part. How about you?’
‘No, not me. I was in jail. Nothing serious, you understand.’
‘Wrong place, wrong time?’
‘Nope, just the wrong person stood behind me.’
‘Then you wouldn’t have seen who was running the contest?’
‘No, not a thing,’ I said, getting a little cagey, since I suddenly had a notion I knew who I was talking to. ‘Why, are they something special to you?’
‘One of them is – a woman, thirty eight years old, dark haired and pretty. She calls herself Maybelle. Travels as the wife of a man called Mayhew. And I’m pretty sure a man called Valance is with them. I don’t suppose that means anything to you?’
I shook my head and reached for my tobacco. Hell, did I need a cigarette.
‘I’ve been tailing them a long time, going round in circles, mostly. Seems they’re always one step ahead, but their luck can’t hold forever. Say, can you spare me cigarette?’
I gave him mine and rolled another.
‘Thanks, I like a cigarette once in a while. What do they call you?’
‘Glad to know you, Oscar. I’m Albie Farrell. I guess I should have said. Care for some more coffee?’
‘Don’t mind if I do.’
I eased my hand to my holster. I was all set to blast that no good woman-beater to Kingdom Come just as soon as he picked up the jug, but when he leaned forward and his coat gaped open, I saw the glint of a badge on his chest.
‘Y-you’re a lawman?’
‘That’s right. I’m a Deputy in a place called Sweetlove. You seem surprised?’
‘I thought Sweetlove was a lawless town.’
‘You know it?’
‘Well, not exactly. Just something I heard on my grandpappy’s knee. Course that was a long time ago.’
‘Maybe it was wild, one time, but not in Joe Hardy's time. He’s been sheriff ten years or more. The only stain on his record is that woman.’
‘The woman you’re looking for?’
‘Yeah, Beulah Price – that’s Maybelle Mayhew’s real name. She killed a man, Travis Dalton, the local saloon owner. She took a knife to him while he was sleeping. Then she cleaned out the safe and set fire to the saloon. Trying to cover her tracks, I guess. We got to the fire in time but there was nothing we could do for Travis. He bled to death.’
‘Maybe he deserved killing?’
‘No. Travis was no saint, everybody knew that, but he didn’t deserve to die the way he did – no man does. Travis took care of Beulah when her Pa died. He gave her a home and bought her fancy clothes, but that wasn’t enough. Beulah always wanted more. She dreamed of shoes and rice, only Travis wasn’t interested. He was known for his wandering ways and that caused a heap of trouble; they were always fighting over it. He used to joke about her killing him someday. Well, he was right about that.’
‘Hmm, it’s a sorry tale, for sure, but you’re wasting an awful lot of time chasing one woman, ain’t you?’
‘Nobody’s beyond the law, that’s what the sheriff says, and I aim to prove it.’
'And that's your only interest in her? I mean, it ain't like she was your girl or something?'
'No, just doing my job. Why do you ask?'
‘Just wondered. So what are you fixing to do when you catch up with her? Ain't gonna put a bullet in her, are you?’
‘I’ll take her back to Sweetlove. She’ll get a fair trial.’
‘How you gonna do that? I mean, you’re a little far from home for that badge to mean anything, ain’t you?’
‘While she’s running free, that’s true, but she won’t be free when I catch up with them. She’ll be in jail just as fast as I can tell the local sheriff what I know, that the shooting contests are crooked and that she, Mayhew and Valance are a bunch of swindlers. And I’ve got signed affidavits and witness statements from a whole string of towns to prove it. Once they’re in jail, transferring Beulah into my custody will be a formality. I’ve only got to file the papers.’
Hell, I never drank coffee so quick. I couldn’t get away fast enough. After thanking Farrell for his hospitality, I practically ran to my horse.
‘Are you sure you won’t stay? You’re welcome to share the fire, and bunk down here for the night.’
‘Thanks, but I’d better be getting along. I don’t think I could sleep yet anyway, coffee keeps me awake. Oh, I just remembered something…I’m sure I heard someone say a man called Brogan won the shooting contest. Course that might be an alias. Wouldn’t surprise me if Valance was an alias, too. I guess you never can tell with sneaky varmints like that.’
‘Much obliged Oscar. Thanks, I’ll check it out. Glad to meet you.’
About an hour down the trail, I bedded down. I couldn’t sleep for thinking of people and places, and everything that had happened. And the awful truth about Maybelle. Hell, I didn’t know there were so many liars in this world. Seems you just can’t trust anybody, anymore. But for all I’d heard, I couldn’t dislike her.
I woke in the morning to blue skies and sunshine. The perfect start to a brand new day and a good sign, for sure. With the sun on my back almost as warm as the feeling in my heart, I got on my horse. North, South, East or West, the choice was mine, but there was only one place I was heading – home. I never made it to Denver.
*Takes a long slug of whiskey*
*Looks to the hills*