Clay Braddock licked at the trickle of sweat that reached his mouth. The sweat was salty, and the dirt on his face mixed with it to make a paste that dried his lips even more.
He glanced around at the buildings on either side of the dusty street as his horse plodded wearily down its center in the baking, mid-afternoon sun. “Not much of a town, Nick,” Braddock said. But his horse paid him no attention. “Green Valley,” he went on. “Humph. Fancy name for a place that looks like it could just dry up and blow away one of these days. And about the only green thing we've seen for miles is cactus.”
Braddock turned his mount toward a horse trough in front of the Desert Hole Saloon. The horse caught a whiff of the scent of water and stretched his neck out. Braddock smiled. “Yeah, me too.”
The horse reached the trough and stuck its muzzle into the water. Instantly, Braddock heard the slurping of the thirsty animal.
He dismounted gratefully and stretched himself to his full six feet. Then he arched his back and stretched his arms out to the side and twisted them. “Feels good to be on my own feet again, Nick,” he said and patted the horse on the neck. “We've come a long way, ol' boy.” The horse shifted on its feet, still lapping up the water noisily.
Braddock peered into the trough. There was not much water in it, but he was surprised that there was any at all. He thought that the saloon owner would have given up on keeping water in the trough in this kind of heat. The water looked stale and warm—but very wet.
He smiled, unbuckled his gun belt, and removed it. After buckling it again, he hooked it over his saddle horn. Then he took off his hat and plopped it on top of the gun belt. Next he unbuttoned his shirt and pulled the tails out. But he left his leather vest on.
“Move over, Nick,” he said. He stepped closer to the trough, reached down and scooped up the water. He splashed it onto his face and poked dripping fingers into his ears. He rubbed the water into his eyes, then cupped his hands and poured handfuls over his head. He splashed water onto his chest and wiped off the sweat and grime of the hot, dusty miles.
Suddenly, a shrill cry from the boardwalk caught his attention, and he turned and saw a young woman trying to twist herself from the grasp of a large man who blocked her way. Very pretty, she was wearing a yellow and white dress that contrasted sharply with the black hair that bounced at her neck from under her bonnet. And the dress showed off her form, even if it did have a ballooning skirt. Her face was fine-featured, with a pleasing complexion that showed she didn't spend every day indoors.
The man, on the other hand, was ugly. He was tall and heavy, and although fairly young, he had a definite potbelly that wasn't covered by his leather vest flapping in the breeze. He had a bulbous nose and fat jowls, and he wore baggy pants stuffed sloppily into his boots. A gun holster hung low on his right hip.
“Let go of me!” the young woman demanded. She slapped at the wrist holding her arm.
“Aw, nursey,” the man said. “I just need a little tendin' to.”
“You're not sick!” she snapped at him.
“Well, how 'bout a little dance then?” He tried to pull her closer.
Another man, the big man's companion, was laughing. “Told you she was a wild filly, Milo,” he said.
Her assailant laughed when the woman smacked his hat down over his eyes. “Oh, want to play in the dark, huh?” He grabbed both her arms now. “I like games in the dark. Come here, pretty Sally.”
“Miss Anderson, to you!” she growled. She kicked him in the leg as hard as her awkward position would allow, but Milo didn't even flinch.
Braddock quickly wiped the excess water from his face and ran his hands over his hair as he stepped to the saddle. He buttoned his shirt as fast as he could and tucked it in.
The woman let out a sharp cry again. “Stop it, stop it!”
Milo and his companion laughed in response.
Braddock quickly put his hat on and slung his gun belt over his left shoulder. He grabbed Nick's reins and moved the reluctant animal the few steps to the hitching rail and looped the reins twice around the rail. Then he strode toward the boardwalk in front of the saloon, holding the holster against his chest with his left hand.
Both of the men on the boardwalk were laughing, Milo with his hat still pushed down over his face. The woman was struggling to back up. They were now directly in front of the saloon door.
Braddock mounted the two steps to the boardwalk and deliberately bumped into the struggling pair. “Oh, excuse me,” he said. “You're blocking my way.”
The woman stopped struggling and looked at him in surprise. Milo said, “Huh?” and he let go of the woman with one hand and fumbled for his hat with the other so he could see. He pushed the hat up and looked at Braddock.
“I said,” Braddock repeated calmly, “you're blocking the door.”
Milo put his free hand on his hip and scowled at Braddock. “Then go around me,” he said. He still held onto one of the woman's arms with the other hand. “I'm busy here.”
“Well, be busy somewhere else. This is a public boardwalk and you're in my way.”
Milo looked back at his companion in astonishment. “Can you believe this hombre, Wes?” he said.
The other man shrugged. “Guess he doesn't know who you are.”
The woman jerked free of her big captor and jumped off the boardwalk.
“Hey!” Milo said, and he started after her. Braddock quickly sidestepped and blocked his way.
The young woman paused and looked up at Braddock. “Thank you, sir,” she said, and then she strode quickly away.
Milo now put both hands on his hips and glared at Braddock. Tall as Braddock was, Milo still had a good three inches on him.
“Now you really spoiled my fun with that nursey, mister,” he said. Milo started to circle Braddock, sizing him up. “I think I'll have some fun with you instead.”
“Sorry,” Braddock said. “I'm thirsty.” And he quickly stepped to the batwing doors of the saloon.
“Hey!” Milo started after him as the latter entered the saloon. The batwing doors swung back and forth on their hinges.
“Forget him for now,” Wes said. “We gotta see McIntyre, remember?”
Milo stopped. “I didn't forget.” He watched Braddock walk deeper into the saloon. “But I ain't done with him yet. Later.”
“Sure, plenty of time.”
Milo stalked off down the boardwalk, and his shorter companion had to hurry to catch up.
Inside the saloon Braddock approached the bar and glanced around. He was surprised at the number of men in the saloon.
“What'll you have, mister?” the glum bartender said as he flipped a dirty towel over his shoulder.
Braddock nodded at him. “Howdy.” He tipped his hat back on his head a bit, and he didn't bother to take the gun belt from his shoulder. “Your sign outside says the beer's cold. Is it?”
“Nope,” the bartender said. “All the ice melted months ago.”
“Hm. Well, I'll have a beer anyway.”
“Okay.” The bartender left him and then came back with a foaming mug.
Braddock picked up the mug and raised it toward his lips.
The bartender held out a cupped hand. “We expect payment before you drink, mister. One dollar.”
Braddock let the mug sink slowly. “Okay. But a dollar's an awful lot for a beer. A warm beer at that.”
“Doesn't seem to make any difference to our other customers. And I don't suppose you're any better than they are.” He still held out his hand.
Braddock was surprised at the bartender's attitude, but he fished into his back pocket, pulled out a silver dollar, and slapped it down on the counter, not into the bartender’s hand. “I could have bought ten beers for this where I come from.” He raised the mug to his lips and started a long drink.
“Well, you ain't where you come from.” The bartender slipped the dollar off the counter. “You're here, and we gotta get our money in advance. Can't tell if you got a job or not or whether you can get one.”
Braddock lowered the mug with a smile. “Ahh. Warm or not, it's still wet.” He set the mug on the bar top and then jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “That why there's so many fellows here on a Thursday afternoon? No jobs?”
“Those that did get hired don't seem to have much to do yet,” the bartender said. “And those that didn't get hired don't have anything to do, anyway. Which man you come here to work for—Davis or McIntyre?”
“I'm not here to work for either one.”
“The others will be glad to hear that. There’s a lot more men already here than get hired.”
Braddock took another drink. “Well, I'm just passing through. On my way north to Montana to my sister's. Her husband died awhile ago, and I'm going up there to help her and her three kids run the ranch.”
“Cowhand, huh?” The bartender started aimlessly wiping the counter with his towel.
“Yup. Been a cowhand and horse wrangler half my life, since I was fourteen. Not much to show for all of it though. Just what I got on Nick outside.”
“My horse. So this may turn out to be as close to a place of my own as I'll ever get. My sister's got a little spread along the Yellowstone.”
“Then you've got a mighty long ride ahead of you.”
“Been traveling a week already,” Braddock said, remembering the endless miles in the saddle. “Figure I'm maybe half-way. Who are Davis and McIntyre?”
“What do you care? You don't want to work for either of 'em.”
“You know, you're not the friendliest bartender I've ever met. Back where I come from—”
The bartender shrugged. “Why don't you go back there?” He turned his back and started to walk away. “Let me know if you want another beer.”
“Not at a dollar apiece. Hey, you got any food?”
The bartender stopped and looked back. “Beans and bread. Want some?”
Braddock nodded in disgust. “Figures. All I can eat?”
The bartender shook his head. “Nope. Each plate.”
Braddock sighed. “That figures, too. Okay, I'll take a plateful.”
The bartender went through a door behind the bar and returned in a minute carrying a tin plate with a thin covering of beans on it and a chunk of bread. He plunked down the plate in front of Braddock. “One dollar. In advance.”
Braddock already had another silver dollar out of his back pocket. “Figured that ahead of time,” he said, and plinked the coin down on the bar top. He looked down at the skimpy portion of food. “Somehow the generous helping doesn't surprise me either.”
“Let me guess,” the bartender said. “Back where you come from—”
“That's right. And back where I come from I'd get a fork or a spoon. Or do I have to pay for them too?”
“No charge.” The bartender reached under the bar, brought up a big spoon and plopped it into the beans. Some sauce spattered onto Braddock's shirt.
Braddock brushed at the sauce. “Think I'll sit at a table.” He glared at the bartender. “Where the company's better.” He picked up the beer mug and plate.
The bartender shrugged.
Braddock walked over to the nearest table, which was empty, and set the plate and mug down. He placed the gun belt on the table, pulled out a chair, and then sat down. He started to eat, scooping up the beans in big mouthfuls. They were cold and not thoroughly cooked. But they were delicious.
He tried to eat them slowly, remembering how much they cost him. But it didn't take him long to clean up the plate. He scraped all the sauce up with the spoon and would have licked the plate, too, but he didn't want to do that in public.
He leaned back in the chair and picked up the beer mug for a long drink. Then he settled back, rested his elbows on the arms of the chair, and idly crossed his fingers. He glanced at the other men in the saloon.
There was almost a dozen, at a time of day when Braddock would have expected the bartender to be just about alone. Several men wore suits or striped white shirts with shoestring ties and no coat, but the clothes looked a bit threadbare. The other men wore clothes like his own, those of a man who worked outdoors. But their clothes didn't look dirty, just rumpled. The men seemed to be having a good time. And Braddock noticed that every man wore a gun belt. Putting it all together he concluded that they were probably all gunfighters.
And he didn't like gunfighters. He figured most cowhands didn't like them. Even in a drought there was work to be done on a ranch, and gunfighters weren't workers. They didn't produce anything. They just sat around and drank and ate up supplies and lived off other people's greed, hate, or tragedy. They were just plain trouble.
“There he is, Milo,” a man from outside the saloon said.
Braddock jerked his head toward the saloon entrance. He saw Milo looking over the batwing doors into the saloon.
“I see him,” Milo said. He punched the doors with his fists and strode in. The doors banged up against the inside wall.
Braddock clenched his teeth and tensed. This time the big man had three other men with him, not just one as before. And Braddock now realized that Milo and his men were gunfighters too, which meant big trouble for him.
Milo strode up to the table Braddock was sitting at. He stopped, planted his feet apart, and put his fists on his hips. “Get up!” he ordered. The man called Wes stopped next to Milo, and the other two men stood a few steps behind him. All conversation in the saloon stopped.
Braddock looked up at Milo. “I'm not done with my beer yet,” he said. He glanced at the other three men. They were smiling, but Braddock was sure the smiles weren't friendly.
Milo reached down and clamped both hands on Braddock's vest. He heaved him to his feet, knocking the chair over backwards. Braddock came up easily; he didn't want his vest ripped.
“We got some unfinished business before you leave,” the big man said. “If you ever do leave.” His companions snickered.
“What unfinished business?”
Milo twisted Braddock's vest and pulled him closer. “You took my fun away from me earlier.”
“I'm sorry,” Braddock said evenly, “but you were blocking the door. I merely asked you politely to move aside.”
“I'm used to people moving aside for me, not the other way around.”
“And I'm used to people being polite,” Braddock informed him. “You're wrinkling my vest. Please let go.”
Milo smirked. “And if I don't?”
“I'll have to make you,” Braddock said matter-of-factly.
The three men with Milo burst into laughter.
Milo glanced down at Braddock's gun belt lying on the table. “That's mighty big talk for a man who ain't even wearin' any iron,” he said.
“A man doesn't need a gun to handle a little boy,” Braddock said, and he was pleased to see Milo's jaw tighten, his eyes bulge, his head quiver, and his control wane. Braddock preferred to fight men who weren't thinking too clearly.
Milo suddenly let go of Braddock's vest and took a short step back. “You stopped the little nursey from havin' a dance with me before, big talker. Now let's see if you can dance yourself.” He went for his gun, and he was quick. The pistol seemed to spring into his right hand of its own will. Milo had the pistol cocked before the gun was out of the holster.
But Braddock was fast too. His left hand shot straight out, and by the time Milo had his gun leveled, Braddock had jammed his forefinger between the hammer and the firing pin, and his hand had clamped down firmly on the gun.
“Go ahead,” Braddock said simply. “Shoot.”
Milo looked down at the useless weapon in his hand. Boisterous laughter broke out in the crowd in the saloon. Milo's companions glared at the laughers. But it had no effect.
Braddock spoke again. “Where I come from, it's not polite to draw a gun on a man.”
Milo bared his teeth and a growl rose in his throat. His body tightened, getting ready to attack.
Braddock drove his right fist straight up and into Milo's clenched jaw. The hand went sailing on up as Milo's head snapped back. Braddock could picture Milo's brain sloshing up against the front of his skull.
Milo's eyes turned upward, he slowly tipped backwards, and then crashed to the floor like a giant tree felled in a forest. The spittoon on the floor at the end of the bar bounced at the impact, and every crack between the floorboards sent up a little puff of dust.
Braddock was left holding Milo's pistol in his left hand, his finger still planted beneath the hammer.
Wes, next to Milo, went for his own gun. Braddock snapped the gun around, grabbed it with his right hand, pulled the trigger, and flicked the hammer back with his left forefinger. The hammer slammed down on the firing pin, the gun fired, and a slug smashed into the gunman's upper right arm.
Wes screamed, dropped his gun, and spiraled down to the floor. He clamped his other hand on the gaping wound in his arm and writhed and screamed.
Braddock had cocked the gun with his right thumb and pointed it at the next man. That man had gotten his own pistol halfway out of his holster, but he froze when he saw the muzzle pointed at him.
Braddock scowled. “Draw it or drop it!” he snapped.
The only correct response was obvious. The man let go. The gun plopped back into its holster.
Braddock gave the third man still standing a fierce look, but that man still had his thumbs hooked in his belt. His mouth was agape, but he quickly blurted, “No play here, mister. Honest.”
Braddock glanced about the room. He hadn't expected trouble from that quarter and none seemed imminent. He looked down at Milo. The man was lying flat on his back, his arms limp at his sides. His head had squashed his hat, his mouth was open, and his eyes were closed. He was breathing evenly.
Braddock called over his shoulder to the bartender without looking in that direction. “You got a doctor in this town?”
“Yeah,” the bartender said. “Those fellows know where his office is. The doc's been pretty busy these days.”
Braddock steadied the pistol on the two men who were standing. They were staring at him, waiting nervously. “Drop your gun belts, slowly,” he ordered.
They nodded. “Yes, sir.” They unbuckled their gun belts and let them drop to the floor.
“Now pick up your wounded friend there and take him over to the doctor.”
They nodded again. “Yes, sir.” They bent down quickly to help Wes, still rolling on the floor in pain. They struggled to get him to his feet. The man screamed in pain again.
“I'll leave your guns here with the bartender,” Braddock said. “You can pick them up later.”
They nodded quickly. “Yes, sir. Okay.” The wounded man stopped screaming and now started to whimper in anguish. “It's busted,” he said. “It's busted!”
“We'll get you to the doc, Wes,” one of the gunmen said. “Let's go.” They headed slowly for the door.
Braddock let the hammer down on the gun in his hand. Then he picked up the wounded man's gun from the floor and tossed both pistols to clatter on the table. Finally he bent down to pick up the two gun belts and their weapons.
Chairs scraped in the saloon. Men rose. They started toward Braddock. He edged toward the table as he looked at the crowd approaching him. “He drew first,” he said. He dropped the gun belts on the table, but his right hand stayed near a pistol handle. His eyes darted warily from one man to the next.
A man in front nodded vigorously. “Absolutely,” he said. “It was a fair fight. No question about it. We all saw it.”
There was a murmur of agreement from the other men.
The man in the lead came up to Braddock and offered a handshake. “My name's Hanson. Tyler Hanson.” He smiled warmly.
Hanson was one of the men wearing a suit. It was dark blue with a buttoned vest to match, and dust showed conspicuously against the dark color. The suit looked awfully hot today, but it did give the man a certain look of authority. So did the gun belt and pistol the man wore under his suit coat. The leather glistened and the buckle was bright and shiny.
Braddock shook the hand cautiously. “Clay Braddock.”
Hanson jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “These are two of my boys—Jim Wells and Dave Reever.” The two gunmen nodded toward Braddock.
Braddock nodded back. He noticed that Hanson's two subordinates were not dressed as nattily. But there was no mistaking the importance they assigned to their pistols.
Hanson placed a boot on the seat of a chair at the table and rested his arm on his knee. “That was a mighty fine piece of action, Braddock,” he said.
“Maybe,” Braddock said. He reached for his own gun belt and started putting it on.
“Going up against four armed men without even wearing a gun,” Hanson said. “That took guts.”
“I do a lot of dumb things.”
“I don't see it that way. You didn't even hesitate. That kind of combination of guts and skill can be very profitable around here nowadays.”
“Oh? This have anything to do with these fellows named Davis and McIntyre?”
Hanson nodded. “It does. We work for Davis.” He nodded at the rest of the men in the saloon. “Some of these other men do too. And some of them work for McIntyre.” He poked a finger towards Milo, still lying unconscious on the floor. “My friend there works for McIntyre too.”
“Is that a fact?” Braddock stuck the two loose pistols in his belt and looped the two remaining gun belts over his arm. Then he picked up the mug and drained the last of the beer. He picked up the plate too, and headed for the bar.
Hanson followed Braddock, as did his two men. The rest of the crowd went back to their tables. “Look, Davis gave me the authority to hire any man I felt I could use. And Davis pays good money.”
Braddock set the mug and plate down on the counter. He slapped the two gun belts down too, and the two loose pistols from his belt. “Keep these for a while,” he said to the bartender.
The bartender nodded casually and stuck all the pistols and gun belts under the counter.
Braddock looked at Hanson. “To do what?”
Hanson shrugged. “Whatever needs doing,” he said.
“That's what I thought.” Braddock hoped his disgust didn't show too much. He nodded down at Milo. “Is he really your friend? How come you work on opposite sides?”
“Yes, he's really a friend of mine. We just got hired by different sides, that's all. It's our work. Friendship can't interfere with that.” Hanson stepped next to Braddock and leaned on the bar. “Can I buy you another beer?”
Braddock shook his head. He looked down at Milo. “He won't be out much longer, and I'm not interested in still being here when he comes to. He won't be fooled so easily the next time.”
“You're right about that,” Hanson said. “And Wes Carter isn't going to be too happy about having his arm shot up, either. Those two friends of his, Billy Stickle and Elmo Flick, might take exception to your actions, too.” Hanson nodded down at Milo. “But Milo's a mighty proud man. Whatever the other three might do, you're either going to have to kill Milo or leave town.”
“You're pretty casual about your friend's fate. But don't worry. I'll leave town.”
“Not so fast.” Hanson placed a hand on Braddock's shoulder to slow him down.
Hanson let go promptly. “Look, there are these two big ranches in this valley. And some little ones, too. But they don't count for nothing. Anyway, these two big ranchers, Davis and McIntyre, are at each other's throats. The valley's not big enough for both of 'em. With this drought they've had for a couple of years now, the range just can't support so many ranches. And to top it all off, Davis's boy, Earl, was killed about a month ago, and McIntyre's son Douglas is being blamed for it. The law can't or won’t do anything about it, so Davis means to have it out with McIntyre himself.”
Braddock nodded down at Milo. “And McIntyre feels the same way about Davis, right?”
“Sure. McIntyre swears his boy didn't do it, but he's as eager to get rid of Davis as Davis is to get rid of him. So one way or the other, one of them will have to go.”
“And you think Davis is the one in the right?”
Hanson laughed. “There isn't any right or wrong to this. Davis just made me a better offer, that's all.”
“I see. The richest one wins, huh?”
“The strongest one,” Hanson said.
“Or the luckiest,” Braddock countered.
Hanson laughed again. “You may be right about that.”
“This is going to be a disaster. A lot of men are going to get killed.”
Hanson slapped Braddock on the shoulder. “Hey, that's what some of us are getting paid for. We take their money and take our chances. It's part of our work.”
“Davis could use you. He’ll pay you more than you make in a year as a cowhand.”
“But I'll probably be alive a year from now as a cowhand.” Braddock started for the door. “So long.”
Hanson followed him. “McIntyre will probably try to hire you. Even after what you did to Milo here. I'd rather have you working on my side.”
“No, thanks,” Braddock said. “By nightfall I want to be far away from here.”
The bartender leaned on the bar. “No need to be in such a big hurry to leave, mister.”
Braddock stopped and looked at the bartender. “I don't like the way this town treats women and strangers. I don't like this town. And,” he added with emphasis, leaning a little closer, “I don't like you.”
The bartender shrugged. “Well, those three men you sent to the doc feel the same way towards you.”
“I'll do them a favor and leave town,” Braddock said. He started for the door again.
“They made sure you wouldn't leave.”
“What?” Braddock asked. “How?” He reached the door and paused to squint at the bright sunlight outside.
“They stole your horse,” the bartender said.