WHOSE TROUBLE IS IT?
Slim Sherman's long legs cut rapid swaths over the boardwalks of Laramie. Purpose in his stride, he made for the First City Bank. A mere ten minutes remained before the banking day would be at close, and the life of his once again mortgaged ranch depended on a timely arrival. His lackadaisical partner had yet to show with needed stock sale monies. Should the slightest tardiness prevail, the Sherman household stood to lose everything, years of time, heart and soul invested. Milking Lady Luck's off chance, Slim could stall, but he wasn't savoring the dog-eared, long-necked task. Without question, he'd offered himself up to the guillotine before, and he'd no doubt do it again.
Oblivious to all other coherent thought, he rushed headlong into a clamorous roadway. The cowpoke with whom he collided was sent sprawling. As flailing arms and legs splayed, the man's downfalling backside took odds against the bottle of prime whiskey he'd toted. Before Slim could move to apologize, the besotted low-life was up, fuming, and mean-mouthed.
"You stinkin' jackass!" He raised the remnant neck of the shattered bottle. "Son of a half-breed mule, yer gonna pay!"
"I'm sorry, Mister. Didn't see you there. I was in a hurry," Slim tried to interject some civility.
"In a hurry ta meet yer maker, I'm athinkin'." The offended hooligan slung aside the right breast and tail of his liquor-soaked topcoat to reveal a long-barreled Smith and Wesson holstered at his side.
Genuine surprise enhanced Slim's apple-pie and dumplin' features. "I said I'm sorry. I'll pay for the whiskey."
The ill-tempered man's legs parted in a stubborn stance of readiness and defiance. "Galldern right ya will, with yer sorry good-fer-nothin' life!"
Attuned to the altercation, a surrounding crowd gave way in flight for the closest, best-view cover. Tension, apprehension that could slow ticks of the most precision-built clock spread through the street, as did word of the impending showdown.
Suddenly the swelling hush was broken by the conclusive thud of hoofbeats. As a froth-sleeked chestnut barreled into the arena, its rider quickly swung his lean form down from the saddle. Beneath a black hat and heavy brows, deep-set, dark blue eyes sized up the contenders, the situation.
"Outa the way!" angrily barked the irate gunman, pinning extreme vexation on the imprudent intruder, "'less you wanna stand next in line!"
"What seems to be your trouble here?" The newcomer sidled up into close proximity. Chiseled features held not merely curiosity, but also concern.
"If it's any o' yer business, I'm 'bout ta send that plug-ugly ta blazes!"
Brim of his Stetson tipped back, the interloper suggested, "Must be pretty sure o' yourself then… pretty blamed fast."
Fidgets and squirly, uncomfortable gesticulations emitted from the surly cuss at this unexpected challenge. "Well, yeah, fast enough ta do that no-'ccount sodbuster."
The encroaching stranger neared, his deep voice lowered as though to disclose some confidential, neighborly advice, "Think so? I wouldn't be so sure o' that if I was you, friend."
In answer to the contender's hesitant squint reflecting "you know somethin' I don't?", the stranger gave a knowing nod along with the accompanying reply, "Ever hear o' Jess Harper?"
Wide grew the would-be shootist's eyes, recognizing a name tantamount to lightning fast, deadly accurate. Insecurity seemed to have shot holes in former cock-suredness. "J… Je… Jess Harper? You sayin' that's him?"
"Just 'cause Harper threw in with the Sherman outfit, don't mean he don't keep a hand in." He indicated the brand on his mount's flank, then gestured toward the intended victim, " Now, that's my pardner over there, so I 'spect I should have some inklin' as to how he handles a gun."
Hemming, hawing, stammering, overflowing with undeniable reservations, the up-to-now arrogant gunfighter caved in, "Uh, well, uh… I, uh… I reckon I coulda been a might hasty."
"Yeah, I reckon." Prussian eyes glinted in agreement.
Yet reluctant to lose all face, the instigator persisted, "…But he did say he'd pay fer the bottle."
Distinct and ardent disapproval impressed from the stranger's sigh. "Mister, I betcha I know Jess Harper better'n anybody - short rein on his temper, even shorter on patience. Ain't you already caused enough aggravation? You really wanna press it?" As he watched heavy shoulders of the damp suitcoat slump in defeat, he appended, "This round, I'd say the drinks are on you."
In absolute surrender, the man twisted on heels to execute a most timely retreat.
Only then did Slim Sherman advance, joining his confrere. "How'd you get him to back off so easy, Jess? What'd you say?"
"Nothin' much. Just that I seen your action."
"Dadblast it, you didn't make me out to be a quick draw, did you?"
Jess Harper offered a lop-sided grin. "Not exactly. Simply told 'im I know your gunplay. Let his imagination do the rest."
Giving his friend a congenial shove, Slim pointed to the still open establishment across the street. "Come on. We got maybe three minutes." He paused before adding, "But thanks, Pard, for getting me out of that minor transaction."
Jess grinned in appreciation of the admission. "Don't mention it. Maybe next time you'll think twice before tellin' me to stay outa trouble."
In a back room of the Crystal Belle Saloon, Walter Bailey looked up from a poker table littered with papers and plans when Otis Flannigan stumbled in, smelling like he'd just distilled a batch himself, looking like he'd filtered the brew through his coat. He rudely pushed ahead of Bailey's jaded cronies.
"Somethin' on your mind, Ode?" the bossman casually expressed, although flaunting an air of irritation. "Thought I told you I didn't want no interruptions."
Flannigan had been ready to blurt out details, but shut his wide open mouth at Bailey's put upon authoritarianism. "'Scuse me, Boss. But… just thought ya'd wanna know… Met up with an old friend o' yers." He waited for Bailey's expected look of 'yeah, so what' before dropping the boot. "Name o' Jess Harper."
'Ode' Flannigan could tell he'd finally gotten Bailey's unadulterated attention when the bossman fixed his gaze, planted hands firmly on the paper cluttered table to pointedly rise to his feet. "You sure you got that right? The Jess Harper? Low-down snake belly gunslick?"
"Oh yeah. Got it straight from 'is pard's mouth. Shoot, I pert near had a run in with 'im my own self."
Disgusted, Bailey dismissed Flannigan's ravings, visibly relaxed and plopped down into his chair. "Get back to the bar, Ode. You need another drink."
"I swear it's the truth, Walt. I ain't dumb enough ta lie ta you."
"Maybe not. But if you really had words with Harper, you wouldn't be standin' here now to tell the tale. Musta been some other 'upstandin' citizen'."
"Well, like I said, that Sherman fella come between us. Guess I owe 'im. Sorta saved my skin. Said that Harper's got a mean temper, and fastest he ever done saw. Bet yer bottom sawbuck I b'lieve it, just from the downright ornery looks of 'im."
Bailey leaned back, considering. "What's he look like?"
Flannigan's head tilted, eyes narrowed, unsure of being tested. "Well, real tall, blondey-lookin', with real mean steely-blue beady little eyes. 'Bout could kill a body with that stare. That how you 'member 'im?"
"Tell the truth, I never for real come across 'im. If I ever hadda, he'da been worm fodder that day on." Walt's inclination was coming around to taking Ode's tale as truth. "So where's he headed?"
"Don' know, Walt. Real hurry he was in. But him an' Sherman gotta be aimin' fer that ranch o' theirs sometime. Spread like that don't run itself." He took a breath before presuming to educate, "But if yer plannin' on tanglin' with Harper, just watch out fer 'im, Boss. Meaner'n a gut-shot she-boar."
"You don't say," he answered without true cognition, and thoughts hovered in the process of calculating, anticipating revenge. That despicable name hadn't crossed his hearing in years, but the mere mention brought everything flooding back.
"Hey, come on, Walt," another of his cohorts prompted, seeing as the boss seemed to have slipped into the reverie of another world, "let's get back to the bank job."
"That can wait." Bailey's glazed eyes focused on a new, more immediate agenda. "Hell, fifty years from now, ten years, two days, that bank'll still be there. But Harper ain't gonna be around for one more sunset."
"You thinkin' o' callin' 'im?" the colleague asserted incredulity.
"Do I look that stupid to you? I know I ain't no match for him, just like my kid weren't. No…" He tapped a finger to his temple. "…we'll even up the odds a bit. Can't hit what he don't see comin'." Walter Bailey chuckled at what he believed to be his own ingenuity.
He didn't have long to chuckle. Flannigan hurriedly closed the door through which he'd been about to exit, and spat out excitedly, "He's here! Out there right now, Walt. Whatcha gonna do?"
Bailey jumped for the door, cracking it just enough to peek out. "Which one? Where?" After Flannigan had pointed, Walt ordered, "Get out there. See what he's up to. Buy the poor 'gentleman' a drink. I hear a fella can build up a powerful thirst where he's headed."
Flannigan looked and felt extremely nervous, but neither did he dare buck the bossman. He moved out toward the bar, consequently setting his steps for the table where Slim and Jess were seated, two steins of frothy beer laid before them. Ode came up slowly behind Jess. "Uh, Mr. Harper?"
Jess sighed and, while turning, started in, "That'd be…" Suddenly halting, at once recognizing the troublemaker from earlier in the afternoon, his nod indicated Slim, "…him."
"Mr. Harper, I'd be right honored ta buy ya a drink. Ya know, ta make up fer any ag… aggavation I mighta brung ya."
The confusion on Slim's face couldn't be mistaken. "But I…" A sharp pain delivered to his shin stopped him short.
"He already has a drink," Jess clarified for both, "but thanks for the offer. If we didn't have ta be gettin' along here real quick, we'd be pleased ta join ya."
"Headed home, eh?" Flannigan pried.
"Yep. Home at last. Maybe we can take you up on that drink next time we're in town."
Hat in hand, Flannigan backed away, then turned to bullseye the batdoors. Slim's heed followed the man's withdrawal, and returned to Jess. "I can't believe it. You told him I was you?"
"No. I didn't. I just let 'im jump to his own conclusions. What's it matter what he thinks? So drink up. I been bustin' my butt on the trail for over a week, and I got a real hankerin' ta get on home."
Slim and Jess took to their mounts. Relief had improved Slim's temperament a hundred fold. The journey hearthward would be much more tolerable, possibly even pleasant now that the bank business was over. Jess didn't hate banks so much as bankers - their superior overbearing attitude, impatience, and inflexibility. Thankfully he could now put it behind him and look forward to an easy jaunt toward a hot, home-cooked meal. Too many days he'd existed on the three B's… beans, biscuits, and beef. "Should make it back in time for supper," he spouted up to break the silence.
Casting a sidelong smirk, Slim chided, "Yeah. Least we'll be on time for something."
Improved temperament didn't necessarily add up to agreeable. Jess shook his head with a grimace, "Slim, I wasn't late. And your little set-to back there slowed us up some."
A sure conviction of his own fault in the delay caused Slim to lighten up. "I know. It's just I was worried. What kept you? I expected you at least a couple hours sooner."
"Seems the army brass had a change of heart, switched camps on wantin' beeves on the hoof. I had to sorta remind 'em, convince 'em we already had a deal." Not caring much for the blue-belly brass, Jess smiled at the mental picture while his right hand just naturally returned to roost, rested at home over the butt of his forty-five.
Slim raised a defying hand in mortified mock denial. "Don't tell me. I don't even wanna know. I'm just glad we can rest easy for awhile."
Nodding, Jess took a notion to ease up some himself. He settled a hand over his brow to gauge where the earth meets the sky. A rosened horizon would soon bow to a dusky nightfall, and his growling stomach wanted to be sitting down to dinner long before then. As the horses plodded along, Jess glanced at his sidekick, a hurry-up idea in mind. "I'll give ya a head start."
Slim grinned back, barely pressing his steed to a quicker pace, but then, without hint pummeled burnished spurs into the animal's flanks. To make good his word, Jess scanned the rocks above once more. At first his keen sight noted simply an unnatural gleam, but to his real and sudden alarm, he perceived that the shimmer danced off the extended barrel of a thirty-thirty, its gray sheen aimed apparently at his swiftly receding partner. "Slim, look out!" he yelled as quickened heels slapped into Traveler's underbelly, and horse and rider bolted to full gallop. But the wind of flight and thundering hooves had doused the warning.
Another swift kick and Traveler lunged forward, two long-strided jumps bringing them alongside Slim's full out gelding. Jess leapt from the saddle, arms wide to grip his friend's shoulders when the shot sounded, loud and ringing. The two toppled, hitting the dirt like a discarded sack of wet laundry. Too near the trail's edge, the impetus rolled them over the side and down a steep incline. Sharp projections of rock and vegetation dug into their flesh as they plummeted and a gravelly, small-scale landslide dusted over them, advancing in their wake. At the end of their tumble and subsequent rain of countryside, they lay still a moment, catching quick breaths, assessing the state of their continued existence in the land of the living.
"You all right?" Jess managed from flat on his back.
"Fine," Slim responded, "You?"
"'Fraid I'll live."
Slim jerked his head sharply. The normal deep resonance of Jess' voice had turned to a strained, forced grunt. "You're hit," he needlessly informed, witnessing a dark crimson spreading, soaking his pal's right shirtsleeve.
"Ain't the first time, not likely to be the last." Seizing a firm hold on rugged landscape, he wheeled onto his side. The trusted Colt found his palm before he'd gained his knees. "Get ready. Whoever them yahoos are, they'll be comin'."
"Them? How many?"
"Got a glimpse of at least four."
"What do they want with us?" Slim argued while drawing his own weapon. "Whatever money we had is in the bank. We got nothin' to speak of."
Jess snickered, and shook a resigned head at Slim's rationalizing. But it made for a good team. Jess could be counted on to keep his wits in a fighting predicament. Slim often let himself get too caught up in the politics. Conversely, Jess hadn't the needed patience to deal with certain folk - business types, autocrats, aristocrats - a different breed he preferred to steer clear of.
"Take cover," he ordered at the sound of advance from above. "Whatever they're after, they haven't given up yet." He flinched aside from the brisk report of the bullet that ripped by his head - any closer and he'da been shaved crooked.
Bailey shoved Flannigan's rifle groundward. "Hold it. I told you I got 'im. See the blood?" He pointed to droplets coloring the trailside where Slim and Jess had fallen.
"But what about the other one? Think he's gonna just let us mosey on down there ta take a gander at the body?" Flannigan scoffed.
"If he's got any smarts, he'll see he's buttin' his head against a storm and ride out." A cupped hand to his mouth directed the shout, "Sherman! Throw out your gun and you're free to go. Got no quarrel with you. It's Harper I want. Sure I got 'im, just wanna cinch I got 'im good and dead."
Below, Slim turned to Jess who looked as clueless as himself, but he had to ask, "Know those guys? What kind of trouble you in now?"
"Never saw 'em before," Jess enlightened while peering up at an unfamiliar face that barely hinted over the rocks on high. "But you heard… so get on outa here. I'll keep 'em busy."
"I'm not runnin' off and leavin' you here and you know it."
"Slim, if you break for it now, you can get back here with the law. We're outnumbered and outranged by rifles. They could keep us pinned down here forever. But my guess is they ain't gonna wanna wait that long."
"Right. So we'll just try to reason with 'em." Ignoring Jess' skeptically raised eyebrows, he called out, "What is it exactly you want?"
The return came back, "I told ya. Harper. Stone cold dead."
"But why?" Slim insisted.
Bailey snorted in disgust, comprehending that he must not have got the job done. "Fella don't need a reason to mash underheel a no good worthless viper, do he?" He took aim in the general direction and fired off a round. "You hear me, Harper? Come on out here nice and easy like and your friend goes free. Otherwise, you're both done for."
Slim laid a restrictive hand on Jess' arm to thwart any crazy fool notion might start bouncin' around in his head. "Well, so much for reasoning." Wide shoulders shrugged while scrutiny read his friend's 'told ya so' simper. "Let's get ready for 'em and split up. Force 'em to do likewise." Before Slim crouched to make a run for a separate position, he gave Jess' shoulder a friendly punch.
Jess winced at the pain Slim's amiability had inflicted upon his wounded arm. Inspecting the damage, he was relieved to discover that the bullet had only caught a fraction of muscle and gone clean through. Not exactly a flesh wound, but neither would it spell his end … yet. Although, the ache would compel him to shoot left-handed. From behind his boulder shielding, he searched the high ground. Having spotted four originally, he now could make out three additional hats bobbing above the terrain. Seven men with Winchesters, advantageous position, and who knew how much ammo. And he and Slim with only their six-irons and limited bullets. Desperate situation defined an understatement.
The men up above had finally begun to make their move, inching down carefully, but still not within range. And they'd most likely stay out of range until a couple of them could circle around below, surrounding them. Jess readied his pistol, left-handed, his eyes darting to mark each enemy's location and progress. It appeared that four would be headed straight for him, while the other three stood to wind up nearer Slim. Well, that suited Jess just fine. Although not quite as fast or confident larboard, he could still hit what he was aimin' at, most times. He raised his head slightly atop the rocks to present a target, cause the vermin to overanxiously jump the gun. Odds were one or more would make a fatal mistake.
As expected, bullets took flight, and two of the conspirators rushed ahead. Jess fired aimlessly, merely to keep them coming, then ducked back to safety. Return fire gouged into flinty slabs, bounced and pinged off granite. More salvos could be heard blasting in Slim's direction. Jess considered that, every once in a rare while, he and his partner did think alike. About to ply the maneuver again, he stepped to the boulder's perimeter. Just then, he spied one of the successfully circling ambushers whose shining, silver-barreled Winchester had drawn a direct bead upon Slim's vulnerable back.
"Behind you!" Jess roared while taking aim. Regardless of severe pain strafing the length of his right arm, he fanned the single-action. Missing did not even enter the mind as an option.
Slim twisted around to see the once-eligible threat plunge from a hilly mound, three bloodletting holes swirling decorative designs upon a reddening chest. A pistol salute to his pard and he returned full consideration to the onslaught. Only three bullets remained, and the cartridges lining his gunbelt looked lean. Each shot had to count. Lady Luck still pranced at his side as one rash adversary heedlessly showed himself. Slim blasted, and the man cartwheeled over the rocks and into obscurity.
Jess had not fared so lucky. Jumping to Slim's aid had allowed the jaspers honing in on him to press down, nearing perilously close. And he'd emptied his chamber. His intended attempt to reload as speedily as possible was injury hampered. From the corner of an eye he saw them coming. He had to hurry. Two rounds in, but before the casing could be spun into position, one ruffian had topped the defensive bank of stone. Enduring the ignominy of having been gotten the drop on, Jess gazed up, powerless, into the sights of a deadly repeater.
"Drop it! Now, Sherman, or ya breathed yer last!"
Minus a choice, he let the gun slip to the ground and focused on his captor's face. Recognition brought understanding of why the man had referred to him as Sherman. Lording over him stood the rascal who'd just recently offered to buy Jess Harper a drink!
"Walt!" the man called, "Over here! I got this one corralled!"
When the taller, huskier man scrambled into view, a certain disappointment played across his formerly upturned lips. Scrutinization of the prisoner obviously did not pan out to Bailey's expectations. Nevertheless he praised, "Good work, Ode. We can use 'im."
"Yeah but lookee, Walt," Ode cackled, "lookee there." He pointed to the blood staining Jess' limply hanging arm. "Ya got the wrong one. Thought ya got 'im, but ya ain't. Winged poor ol' Sherman instead." The supposed fact appeared to tickle him no end.
"Never you mind," Walt grumbled, "don't matter nohow. Worked out for the best. If Harper don't wanna see his friend suffer, he's gotta give hisself up."
Jess had never laid eyes on this man. What was his gripe? Without doubt, over the years Jess had garnered quite a few enemies and ill-wishers, but his mental tally couldn't conjure up each and every incident and relation. "What've you got against Harper?" he solicited answers.
Walt furrowed a brow at the inquisitive captive. "Maybe you don't know it, Mister, but you pardnered up with a murderer! Hired gun what opts with the highest bidder. Right or wrong don't make no difference. Got no qualms over gunnin' down a young, innocent kid."
The information had a definite effect. "Kid? What kid?"
"Only fifteen. Didn't stand a chance. Harper cut down my kid without so much as a blink or a nod." Walt turned his back, leaving Jess desperately wracking his brain to recollect, unable to bring to mind any such occurrence.
"Hold it! Hold your fire!" Walt hollered at the underlings still holding Slim at bay. When all was quiet, he proceeded, "Harper! Jess Harper! We got your pal here just sittin' pretty. You wanna keep 'im that way, best give it up. If not, he ain't gonna die easy!"
"Don't do it, Slim!" Jess yelled out before directing words to Walt. "You got it wrong, Mister. You want Jess Harper, that'd be me."
Walt and Ode laughed at what they considered a paltry attempt to spare a compadre.
"Yeah right," Ode piped up, "yer the one talked me outa tryin' 'im 'cause he's Jess Harper."
"I didn’t exactly say that. I asked if you'd ever heard o' me."
"Forget it, Sherman, " Walt decreed, "that bird ain't gonna fly."
"I'm tellin' ya the truth," Jess insisted, " I only let your right hand there go on believin' what he wanted to believe."
The seed of doubt had been planted and Walt wavered in his resolve.
"Aw, what difference it make?" Ode protested. "We can just kill 'em both. Don't matter who's who."
In the act of rifle-butting Ode aside, the bossman's nasty sneer distorted his countenance. "Matters to me. I wanna remember the face of the scum-weasel held my son's life forfeit. And I wanna remember that face goin' through hell."
"Sure, Walt," Ode mollified, "but… so how ya gonna figure the truth of it?"
The twinkle in Walt's eyes disclosed a dawning caprice. "We'll find out who's fastest. Harper bests Sherman, I issue Harper's death warrant. Couldn't be simpler than that."
Why were they yelling for Jess when they already had him? So they suffered from a case of mistaken identity, Slim rationalized, and he had to play along or Jess was good as dead. He had to keep the ignorant scoundrels thinking along the wrong tack if he and Jess were to have any chance of getting out of this thing. "Who are you?," he called, "What'd I ever do to you?"
"I s'pose Pleasant Valley, the Pleasant Valley War don't ring a bell," Walt granted while motioning Ode to haul their prisoner up into view.
Under such duress, Jess struggled with memory.
Meanwhile, Slim faked, "I, uh… mighta passed through there."
"Passed through?" Walt voiced aghast, "Yeah, took you only long enough to leave a trail o' blood a mile wide, belly deep. And little Timothy Bailey, 'member him? Naw, likes o' you probly never give a thought to them you slaughter."
In a bind now, Slim didn't know how to respond. Though aware of his associate's somewhat disreputable past, they'd never discussed it much. He preferred not to think about those who might have fallen to Jess' rapid-fire gun hand. Saved from an immediate reply, he watched Walt prod Jess to the fore.
"You got any kindly feelin's t'ward this here fella, best toss your gun and step out. Otherwise, he just might be likely to lose an ear… or two… just for starters."
"Forget it, Slim," Jess frantically interjected, "I already told 'em they got what they're after. Now you do the same and get on outa here."
Good, Jess, Slim thought, keep 'em confused. "No way, … Slim. You ain't playin' sacrificial lamb, and they ain't takin' whatever's itchin' their backsides out on you." He pitched his six-shooter over the lip of the promontory and, empty hands pointed skyward, slipped out from cover. "All right, you got a deal. Let Sherman go and I'm all yours."
"Slim, you crazy?" At first Jess couldn't believe his buddy's reckless actions, but rethinking, yeah, it fit. "Tell 'em the truth, Dadgummit!" His deep ocean-blue eyes took on that rankled glare, and that certain undeniable set molded his jaw. He found himself actually courting real anger at his partner's pigheadedness, but saw that protests were of no use as the two outlaws nearest were already shoving Slim ahead. His amigo obviously felt like being stubborn, not really an uncommon bent.
With unsure misgivings, Walt studied the two pretenders. "Well now, seein' as you both 'ppear to wanna claim the honors, we're gonna have to have a little contest. You two'll shoot it out. One bullet each should be sufficient. From all I heard, Harper's the best in the business. Only one way to tell."
"What's that gonna prove?" Slim forwarded disbelief. "H… I ain't 'in the business' anymore, and I certainly wouldn't go all out to kill a friend."
Walt reveled in his cleverness, "I didn't say you had to kill 'im, now did I? If you're Harper, and Harper's the best, all you gotta do is survive, shoot your dearest friend in the arm, the leg, whatever you gotta do. That too much to ask? Don't worry, we'll round up a doc."
"And I can trust you to keep your word?"
"You got another better choice?" Walt jeered.
Astounded that Slim seemed to be considering the stratagem, Jess leapt into the fray, "Wait a minute. My shootin' arm ain't exactly up to par right now. So if Slim does get the advantage and you let me go, how's that gonna satisfy your revenge?"
"You leave that final judgment up to me, Mister. If you ain't good enough to overcome one teensy little drawback, best no more'n a ranch hand, then you ain't who you're bustin' a gut to make me believe."
Jess could do no more than accept circumstances of the straights they were in. How could he go up against his best friend? Slim was competent enough when it came to rustlers or defending the ranch against predators, wolves both human and canine, but he'd never lived by the gun, life on the line of prowess and acuity. That being the case, a man just didn't know what to expect, how to cope with his own performance in a life or death match. Could Jess even think of harming the one man who had befriended him, taken him from a solitary existence to make him feel as though he belonged, a welcomed and needed family member? Yes, he could, if it came down to that, if he had to. Imperative, for Slim's own sake he had to put all else aside, bringing to bear all knowledge and each tidbit of Slim's character and idiosyncrasies gleaned over the years. Despite the wound, he was compelled to out-draw the one person in the world whom he'd mistakenly let in, allowed to grow closer than a brother.
Slim had been thinking slightly along the same lines. Ordinarily, he'd never win out over Jess. But since the odds had been evened up a bit, could he fire on his best friend without killing him? Was he good enough? He supposed he'd have to find out, and hoped Jess was planning on taking it slow. Jess must realize that one of them had to get out, had to gain help for the both of them.
Amusement lighting his eyes, Bailey placed the two friends apart and astance at about ten paces. They faced one another, guns loaded, one bullet each.
"Whatcha waitin' for?" the criminal goaded as the two mates stood, neither willing to make the first move. Jess stared into Slim's hesitant eyes. Slim stared back, an obvious revulsion over governing factors filling his face. If they chose to turn their weapons on the enemy, there'd still be three rifles aiming to ruin their evening.
Almost reading their minds, Bailey pointed to the sighting firearms. "Don't even think o' tryin' any funny stuff, or you'll both wind up cripples. Maybe even dead cripples." As both contestants appeared reluctant, he added, "So get on with it."
Still they delayed. Slim shifted his weight while Jess' fingers flexed and readied. Bailey's impatience grew. "Am I gonna have to count to three?"
Jess knew he had to force Slim's hand, at least give pretense to go for it. A sudden quick slip of his arm toward the pistol grip did it. In a blink's time, Slim went for his gun, freeing the holster best he could. This was the one chance Jess had in mind - oblivious to the agony his injury bequeathed, faster than a telegraphic divination, he expertly drew and situated the Colt, firing a perfectly aimed shot toward his opponent's holster-liberated revolver. The blasted weapon twisted from Slim's hand and careened off to the side, kicking up dirt as it slid. In a bold leap to recoup, Jess rolled for the undischarged pistol and, upon victory, raised the piece up to target Walt. A dangerous command intensified his deep timbre, "Tell 'em to drop the rifles, Bailey! Or the next move is your last! One bullet … all I'll need, all you'll never see comin'."
Bailey's surprise at the totally unexpected evidenced. Still, higher cards were his to play. Four arrayed carbines remained trained on the two hostages. "My men can send you both to hell quicker'n a bat outa."
"Maybe so," Jess willingly acceded, "but your sorry hide'll beat us there."
Bailey had just seen what the man could do, and a scant three feet of desert separated his scalp from Harper's proficiency. That single, remaining bullet had Walt's name inscribed all over it, back and forth. Valuing his own neck over vengeance, he discouragedly motioned his men. "Drop 'em, Boys." Through an inflating hatred that welled in his eyes he spat out, "So you gonna lay me low now, just like you done my kid?"
Jess heaved a breath of pure disgust, "If your son was lookin' to make a name for himself, if he'da called me out, I probly woulda killed him, but I'm tellin' you, Mister, I don't know what you're talkin' about. Never heard o' Pleasant Valley, and never been there. You been holdin' a grudge against the wrong man."
Bailey didn't believe it, Jess could tell, yet it was truth plain and simple.
Slim had rounded up forsaken rifles and the errant ne'er-do-goods. Not terribly far out, the ride back to Laramie thankfully didn't take long. Still, they couldn't make the homeward journey that night, forced to hole up at the hotel.
Sheriff Mort Corey had taken the prisoners in with a smile. There'd been paper outstanding on Bailey and Flannigan. Next morning, he happily handed over reward money to Slim and Jess. Once more, they headed out, hoping this next trip would prove boring and eventless.
Along the trail, Slim queried, "How'd you manage it, Jess? I mean, just knocking my gun off like you did."
Striking him whimsical, as though everyone should be able to discern the obvious, he schooled, "Like I said, I know your action. When you draw, your tendency is to hitch off to the right side. Nasty habit that some folk might feel inclined to take advantage of. I could show you how to correct that if you wanted."
Slim's tight-drawn lips couldn't help but whirl up into a grin at his friend's revealing lowdown. "Nope. My faults seem to come in handy most times." Lowering his head as he thought back, he advised, "You know, you took a pretty big chance out there, guessing Bailey'd back down."
"Did I?" Jess volunteered his own amused expression. "And there all that time I figured we were opperatin' off a mighty 'Slim' chance."
Heels dug into their horses' ribs, and they sped toward the ranch. At last and long awaited, they might could get home to a hot-cooked meal.
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