Luke Jensen was in Bent Creek, Wyoming, on business. He didn't want to waste timeâor bulletsâkilling some obnoxious young fool who didn't know any better than to prod him.
Unfortunately, it looked like he might not have a choice.
Luke stood at the bar of the Three of a Kind Saloon and toyed with a glass of exceptionally mediocre whiskey. The liquor wasn't
bad enough to convince him that the proprietor had brewed it out back in a washtub and thrown a few rattlesnake heads into the mix for flavoring, but it came close.
Some decent cognac would have been more fortifying after the long ride Luke had made today, but since this was Bent Creek, Wyomingâa squalid, muddy, vermin-infested hamlet if ever there was oneâand not San Francisco or Denver, Luke supposed he would just have to make do with what was available. Any port in the proverbial storm.
He threw back the rest of the rotgut in the glass, grimaced slightly, and tried to ignore the young hardcase sitting at a table behind him with some friends.
“Don't he look dangerous, dressed all in black that way?” the would-be troublemaker was saying. “And them fancy guns, well, it makes me scared just to look at 'em, boys.”
The youngster's mocking tone grated on Luke's nerves. He wasn't an overly vain man, although the black hat, shirt, trousers, and boots he wore were well cared for and he had slapped some of the trail dust off of them before he walked into the saloon.
Nor were the revolvers riding in the cross-draw rig he wore as fancy as the hardcase made them out to be. They were long-barreled, .44 caliber Remingtons, nickel-plated, to be sure, with ivory grips, but they weren't adorned with any elaborate engraving. To Luke they were simply the well-used tools of his trade.
None of that mattered. The kid was on the prod, and if it hadn't been Luke's clothes or guns, the harasser would have found something else to make fun of. Luke was a stranger in Bent Creek, and the young man, who probably considered himself the big he-wolf around here, had decided to goad him into a fight.
The short, fat bartender looked nervous, as if he had seen similar scenes played out in the Three of a Kind before. Most likely, he had. He picked up the bottle and gave Luke an inquiring look. Luke shook his head and said, “I believe I've had enough.”
“Next one's on the house, mister,” the bartender said. The words made his three chins wobble.
“Obliged, but I'll pass.” The bartender clearly didn't want a shooting, so he was trying to stall for time hoping the kid would get bored and forget about starting a fight, Luke figured.
That was all well and good. The man didn't want bullets flying around his business. Luke could understand that.
But he was tired and not in the mood to be charitable. Besides, he might be able to use this to his advantage.
“I should probably be moving on . . .” Luke began. He saw hope leap to life in the bartender's eyes, the hope that Luke would leave before any gunplay broke out. “But I need to ask you one question first.”
“Sure, mister. What is it?”
“I'm looking for a friend of mine who might have come this way,” Luke liedâabout the
part, anyway. “Medium height, brown hair, just a little on the slender side.”
“That could be a lot of men. He got a name?”
The bartender shook his head slowly and, Luke thought, sincerely.
“Sorry, mister. Don't know the name. Anything else you can tell me about him?”
“Well, he was riding a paint pony a while back, but I don't know if he still is.”
“What you should do, then,” the bartender said, “is go on over to Crandall's Livery. It's the only one in town. If anybody rode in lately on a paint, Fred Crandall will know about it.”
“And once again, I'm obliged to you,” Luke said. The young hardcase had fallen silent, and Luke thought maybe he had lost interest.
That wasn't the case. Luke glanced in the mirror behind the bar and saw the kid watching him. The intent expression on the young man's face told him all he needed to know.
Luke caught a glimpse of his own face, too: tanned, weathered, too craggy to be called handsome, dominated by a slightly larger than normal nose with a neatly trimmed black mustache underneath it. It was a tired face, weary from the years he had lived, the miles he had traveled, and the gunpowder he had burned. To be honest, the face of a man not to trifle with.
The hardcase, though, was blinded by youth and arrogance, and as Luke turned away from the bar, the young man scraped his chair back and stood up.
“Where you goin', stranger?” he asked. A simple question, but it had an air of challenge about it.
“Over to the livery stable,” Luke said, his voice deceptively mild. “As late in the day as it is, I believe I'll spend the night, so I'll need to arrange to leave my horse there.”
“Well, maybe we don't want fellas like you spendin' the night in Bent Creek.”
Luke smiled at the bluster and said, “Fellas like me? Just what sort of fella do you think I am?”
“The kind who thinks he's better'n everybody else. You can't fool me, mister. I was watchin' in the mirror and saw the face you made when you took your drink. You think Johnny's whiskey ain't no good.”
The bartender cleared his throat and said, “I, uh, didn't notice anything like that, Tate.”
“He wouldn't take a second drink, would he? Even when you told him it was on the house! Where I come from, by God, that's a damn insult.”
you come from, Tate?” Luke asked.
The young hardcase frowned in confusion, the question clearly catching him by surprise. He said, “Why, right here in Bent Creek, of course. Born and raised on a spread a few miles outta town.”
“Well, if you're actually
the place you come from, then you shouldn't be saying
where I come from
, because that implies it's somewhere else, other than where you are.”
Tate's confusion was growing. He gave a little shake of his head and moved a step closer to Luke. Behind him at the table, his two friends had stood up as well and spread out a little. Typical tactics, Luke thought. They were ready to back Tate's play, whatever it turned out to be.
Tate scowled and said, “You're tryin' to get me all mixed upâ”
“Just pointing out a slight logical flaw in your manner of speakingâ”
“You high-toned son of a bitch!”
From behind the bar, fat Johnny said, “Please, Tate, if there's any more trouble in here, Marshal Donovan's liable to shut me downâ”
The tense way Tate held himself told Luke that Johnny's plea wasn't going to do any good. Tate had screwed his nerves so tight inside that there was only one way to let off the pressure.
“Look, maybe I'll have that second drink after all,” Luke said, turning back slightly to the bar but not taking his eyes off Tate. The move made Tate frown and keep his hand from stabbing toward his holstered gun, as it had been about to do.
Johnny had set the bottle of whiskey on the bar. Luke's left hand closed around the neck of it, and what happened next was so swift it was hard for the eye to follow. Luke twisted, whipped his arm out, and flung the half-f bottle at Tate. The bottom of it struck him in the center of the forehead with a solid thump but didn't break. The impact knocked Tate back a step. His feet tangled with a chair and he went down in an ungainly sprawl.
Even before the bottle hit Tate, Luke's hands had closed around the butts of the Remingtons and pulled the guns smoothly from their holsters. He had the revolvers leveled at Tate's friends before the two men could do more than start their draws.
“Touch those guns and I'll kill you both, gentlemen,” Luke informed them. He took a quick step forward. Tate was moving around on the floor, but his eyes weren't clear and he didn't seem to have much control over his muscles. His Colt had fallen from its holster. Luke kicked it and sent it sliding across the sawdust-littered floor.
He set himself, kicked again, and this time his boot thudded against Tate's jaw. Tate sagged back, out cold.
“Hey!” one of Tate's friends said. “You kicked him when he was down!”
“Yes, and I could have just as easily killed him. Johnny, come out from behind the bar and take their guns.”
The bartender hustled to do as Luke ordered, telling the two men, “Don't hold this against me, fellas. I ain't got no choice. I mean . . . look at him. He's some kind o' gunman.”
“Damn outlaw, more'n likely,” one of the men said as Johnny lifted his gun from its holster.
Luke smiled and said, “I'm on the other side of the law, for the most part.”
The second man's eyes widened as he said, “Hell. You're not one of them U.S. Marshals, are you?”
“Nothing that official.”
“I bet he's a bounty hunter,” the first man said, spitting out the words bitterly. “Look at him! A born killer!”
“Yeah, Tate should've seen that,” the second man said with a gloomy sigh. “We tried to tell him to leave you alone, mister. Sorry things got to this point.”
“Will you quit kissin' up to him?” the first man said. “We don't have to worry about a damn bounty hunter. Ain't any reward dodgers out on us.”
“What about him?” Luke asked, nodding toward the still senseless Tate.
“There ain't no charges against him. Every shootin' scrape he's been mixed up in was self-defense.”
“Like this one here tonight would have been if I'd let him push me into reaching first?” Luke shook his head and went on disgustedly, “You two had better open your eyes and think about something. You keep following Tate around and giving him an audience for his little gunfights, there's a good chance you'll die right along with him one of these days. I could have killed all three of you if I'd been of a mind to.”
“I reckon he could have,” Johnny said. “You seen how fast he got them guns out.”
“Here's something else you should remember: I'm not really that fast,” Luke said. “Not compared to some I've seen.”
He was talking about his brother Smoke and his other brother Matt, both of whom could have shaded Luke on the draw if it ever came down to that . . . which it wouldn't, seeing as they were all family and good friends, to boot.
“Tate, there,” Luke went on, “he may be
Bent Creek fast
, but that doesn't mean he's fast enough to survive for long anywhere else.”
“You're preachin' to the choir, mister,” the more reasonable of the duo said. “We don't want any more trouble. Why don't we just all go on about our business and forget this ever happened?”
“That would be the smartest thing for all of you to do, including Tate.” Luke lowered the Remingtons. “But if he's the sort to hold a grudge, I won't cut him any slack next time. If he's really your friend, you should make sure he understands that.”
He didn't pouch the irons until he had walked to the saloon's entrance, watching the three men from the corner of his eye as he did so. Tate's two friends knelt next to him and started trying to bring him around.
Luke pushed out through the batwings and paused on the boardwalk to sigh as he looked across the street toward the livery stable. It had started raining while he was inside the Three of a Kind, so the street was even muddier than it had been when he rode into Bent Creek a while earlier. Now he was going to have to slog across there, leading the rangy gray gelding he was riding these days, and talk to the liveryman to see if he had seen Judd Tyler or the paint pony Tyler had been riding.
Luke hoped he was nearing the end of this pursuit. Tyler had a decent bounty on his head, a thousand dollars, but more than that, he was the sort of owlhoot Luke enjoyed taking out of circulation: a mad dog killer who had beaten and choked the life out of a young woman, a minister's daughter, at that. Tyler richly deserved the hangrope that was no doubt waiting for him up in Montana.
Luke led the gray toward the stable in the fading light as the rain droned around him and pelted on his hat. Bent Creek had a single hotel, so there wasn't any choice in accommodations. Luke hoped they had a bathtub. He wanted a hot soak and some dry clothes.
He wasn't so lost in his thoughts that he failed to hear the batwings slap aside suddenly behind him. He dropped the gray's reins and wheeled around in time to see the young hardcase called Tate lunge out onto the boardwalk with a gun in each hand, flame spouting from their barrels as he fired.