Justin McBride stretched up to look down at the town below him. From where he was, he could see about two dozen buildings. He nodded to himself. Bigger than he’d expected. Clicking his tongue, he made his horse gently walk down the road, if this muddy path could be called that, into town. The sign he passed said FRESHWATER Pop. 267 on it.
That many? Who would’ve thought.
McBride smiled to himself. After having been on the road for as long as he was now, sleeping on the ground and filthy as a coyote, he really looked forward to a bath and a bed. And something a bit more civilized to drink than water.
The houses he passed looked well cared for. The main street, at least McBride supposed that’s what it was, was a mudbath. Those of the 267 citizens of this backwater town who milled about walked on the wooden sidewalks. The street itself was curiously empty, the only traffic McBride encountered consisting of three or four horseback riders like himself (only cleaner) and three carts. The people stared at him curiously. That wasn’t unexpected. A town this size, it was likely everybody knew everybody else. A town this much out of the way, any stranger would likely be a welcome curiosity.
In a way, McBride felt sorry he wouldn’t be as welcome anymore once they found out what he was here for.
One of the buildings McBride passed by had huge windows with writing on them. The elaborate calligraphy said FRESHWATER RAPIDS in large, bold letters. Underneath it, smaller lettering proclaimed it to be Freshwater’s Independent Newspaper. And underneath that they claimed We’re here to make waves.
McBride smiled. A newspaper with a sense of humor. That was rare. Usually, they took themselves far too seriously.
A man in shirtsleeves looked out through the window to see what the attraction was. A moment later he stepped outside for a better view. McBride figured the man to be in his mid-twenties. Young enough to still have some ideals. McBride decided he would likely be sorry if he’d have to shut this one up. He nodded at the young man, who vanished back inside.
Two buildings away was the sheriff’s office. Like the newspaperman, the sheriff stepped outside to have a look at the new arrival. McBride wondered what type the sheriff was. Either way, it probably wouldn’t matter. As old and fat as he was, he wasn’t likely to be any kind of trouble. He’d probably have enough sense to stay indoors when shooting began.
The saloon was diagonally across the street from the sheriff’s office. A two-story house, obviously a residence, was directly across the street, a general store nearby. Next door to the sheriff’s office was the physician’s practice. McBride knew enough to know it was sensible to know where the doctor was in any given town. You never knew when you needed one, and many a good (or bad, depending on your inclination) man had died because he couldn’t get to a doctor in time. On the other hand, a lot of people McBride had known had died because of a doctor’s interference, but that was another story entirely.
A bit farther down the street was a livery stable. McBride made that his first stop. He nodded his appreciation that the livery stable was connected to the blacksmith’s.
As soon as he dismounted, a boy of perhaps twelve years came running out of the livery stable.
“Rub him down and feed him,” McBride told the boy, taking his saddlebags and his Winchester ’73 carbine from the saddle. Slinging the bags over his shoulder, he fished for some money in his pocket. He found a dollar bill, gave it to the boy, whose eyes grew large. “Take good care of him,” he said. “I’ll pick him up come morning.”
“Yessir,” the boy said. He took the horse’s reins and led him into the stable.
McBride watched them for a second before he went to the saloon. He pushed through the swinging doors, pausing in the doorway to accustom his eyes to the gloomy interior. A dozen or so people sat at the tables. Their conversations stopped as they looked the new arrival over. Waiting a moment longer than necessary, McBride allowed them to get a good look at him before he went to the counter. He wasn’t here to get into trouble. Not yet, at any rate. He kept an eye on the huge mirror behind the counter anyway. You never knew. Leaving the saddlebags on his shoulder, he laid the carbine on top of the counter. He kept it in the scabbard to show the barkeeper he meant no trouble. He also kept his right hand on the butt. Behind him, the conversations started up again.
“Do you have food?” he asked the barkeeper.
“Boston bakes beans.”
“With bread on the side?”
“I’ll take it,” McBride decided. “And coffee.” He pointed his thumb at an empty table. “Can I get it there?”
“Can do. New in town?”
“Yup. I’ll need a place to stay the night.” McBride plucked at his overcoat. “And a bath, I’d wager.” He put on his most winning smile. “Where could a body get those?”
“For the night?”
“Yup. Need to ride on tomorrow.”
“Mrs. Barlow’s renting rooms,” the barkeeper said, scratching his chin. “I’ll betcha she’s got a free one. She also has a bathtub. I know her other tenants get to use it, so if you rent a room I reckon you’ll get the use of it too.”
McBride nodded. In the mirror, he saw two men rise from their table. Their clothing was ordinary. What alarmed him was the way they carried their revolvers; the holsters hung low on their thighs, with their leather straps tied around the legs just above the knee. McBride knew the type. They were probably the fastest draws in town out to make the point to anyone who might not know it yet. Hooking their thumbs into their gunbelts, they ambled over to the counter in a bow-legged swagger, the needlessly large wheels of their spurs clicking and clanging as they walked.
McBride studied the man who’d remained seated at the table the other two had just left. The man leaned back in his chair, apparently relaxed. His right hand was hidden by the tabletop.
Probably on the butt of his gun, McBride figured. He turned around just as the other two took their positions on either side of him. The barkeeper scurried off, vanishing through a door on his side of the counter. Into the kitchen, McBride hoped.
“Who’re ya?” the guy on his left said. He smiled, revealing a chipped front tooth. McBride locked eyes with him until Chip looked away. McBride looked at the other guy, who wore a fashionable droopy moustache.
“Who’s askin’?” he replied.
“We are,” Chip said, putting a hand on McBride’s shoulder. McBride looked at Chip, at the hand, at Chip.
“We’re the Freshwater Reg’lars,” Droopy said, putting his right hand on McBride’s other shoulder. McBride played the game with Droopy, who also proved to be too stupid to remove his hand. His gun-hand, even.
“Don’t you mean regulators?” McBride said softly. A smile tugged at his lips. He let it. He looked again at Chip. “Or what?”
Chip looked at Droopy, who looked at the man at the table. McBride looked at the man at the table. He had been right then, that guy was the leader of this little charade. McBride went over to the table, leaving Chip and Droopy behind. He didn’t sit down. He preferred to look down at the man who dressed as gaudily as a comanchero out of a Beadle Dime Novel, up to and including the oversized sombrero which lay on a free chair beside him. The clink and clang of their spurs told McBride that Chip and Droopy came after him.
“Those with you?” he asked Sombrero. Sombrero shrugged.
“Sometimes,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper.
“You’re new in town,” Sombrero said. “I need to be cautious. Can’t trust nobody, you know.”
“Oh. Really. Never occurred to me.”
“Who you work for?” Sombrero asked, pointing at a chair. McBride ignored the invitation.
“You need a gun?”
“Someone who can use one, anyways. We pay top dollar.”
“I’m already under contract, thanks.” McBride turned, only to face Chip and Droopy, who stood shoulder to shoulder, barring his way. “Call off your boys before they get hurt,” he suggested.
“Nobody talks like that with Billy,” Chip said, pushing McBride.
“And gets away with it,” Droopy added, also pushing.
These guys have definitely read too many Beadles, McBride thought. Provided they can read.
“Oooh, I’m scared now,” he said. “Wanna make something of it?”
Chip reached out to push McBride again. McBride sidestepped and punched Chip’s nose. Chip stepped back several paces, howling, holding his nose which bled profusely. Droopy, watching Chip with his mouth open, caught McBride’s other fist in his mouth. He too stumbled back. Droopy wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He looked at the red smear on his hand, howled and charged McBride. McBride sidestepped, picked up a chair and smashed it on Droopy’s back as he passed. The impact knocked Droopy off his feet.
McBride dropped the chair’s remains as someone tackled him from behind. Like Droopy before him, he fell to the sawdust-covered floor. The dust whirled up. Some of it got into his nose. It made him sneeze. He felt the impact of a fist on his back, which wasn’t as bad as it could have been thanks to the dampening layers of dust and clothes. McBride jerked his arm back, rammed his elbow into the attacker’s face. A howl told him he had connected with something painful. The man’s weight lifted from his back. McBride bucked up, threw the man off and got back to his feet. He managed to duck barely in time to avoid a flying chair.
Blocking and parrying a punch from someone he had never seen before, McBride saw that the saloon had erupted into chaos. There weren’t all that many patrons present, at best a dozen, but those worked hard to make up in destruction what they lacked in numbers. McBride knocked his opponent down, only to catch a glancing blow from someone who stumbled into him and wanted to throw a punch at someone else. McBride dealt him a two-fisted blow to the side of his head. The man he had just saved smiled a gap-toothed smile at him. McBride didn’t like the man’s smile and knocked him off his feet as well.
That’s enough of that, he decided. It took him a moment, but at the end he managed to weave his way back to the counter. He arrived just as the barkeeper came back into the common room. Instead of the coffee and food, as McBride had hoped, the man held a double-barreled shotgun in his hands.
“That’s enough of that,” the barkeeper yelled. Somehow, that sounded somewhat familiar. McBride leaned against the counter and unbuttoned his coat. The brawlers seemed unimpressed. The barkeeper fired both barrels into the ceiling. Anticipating falling debris, McBride ducked his head. To his surprise, nothing came down.
Don’t do it, his inner voice warned him. You’ll regret it if you do it.
He couldn’t resist and looked up at the ceiling anyway. Unable to see any kind of damage, he chuckled. The barkeeper had been firing blanks. At least his intention penetrated the brawlers’s thick skulls. They stopped fighting. The barkeeper reloaded his shotgun. Real ammo this time, McBride supposed.
“What’s the big deal?” Billy yelled across the room.
“This is my place, Billy,” the barkeeper replied calmly. “I don’t cotton to people wrecking it. Or are you gonna foot the bill? Or maybe your brother?”
“Leave my brother outta this,” Billy said. He rose from his chair. “It’s all his fault anyways.” He pointed at McBride. “He started it.”
“Didn’t look that way from where I stood,” the barkeeper countered. McBride wondered how the man could have seen anything when he hadn’t even been in the room.
Oh well, chalk one more up for life’s little mysteries.
“We all together did this.” McBride tried to be reasonable. “It’s only fair if we all pay up.” He turned to the barkeeper. “Tally up the damage and split it betweenst everybody here. Shouldn’t amount to all that much for each of us, I reckon.”
The barkeeper nodded and looked over the damage.
“I ain’t payin’ for ennathin’,” Billy squealed. He stepped away from the table and angled his arm away from his torso. McBride sighed. He really wasn’t in the mood for this. Not on an empty stomach, at any rate.
“There’s no reason for anybody to get killed over this,” McBride said softly. He pushed the right half of his coat back, revealing the revolver he carried at his hip. “Let’s all pay up our shares and go our ways. We can always get ourselves killed later.” He waved his hand at the exit. “It’s late already, and the weather isn’t right for killing either. If I have to go, I want to do it when the sun shines. Don’t you?”
“I don’t plan on dyin’,” Billy said. He jerked his arm down. McBride waited until his gun had half cleared his holster before drawing his own revolver. A shot rang out. Another shot rang out. Billy, his Colt Army still pointed at the floor, stared at his chest. His left hand touched the slowly spreading bloodstain on his shirt.
“You killed me,” he said, sounding both surprised and indignant. Then he fell over.
McBride sighed again and holstered his Peacemaker.
“It was a fair fight, stranger,” the barkeeper said. “You ought to absquatulate anyway.”
“He had a lot of friends?”
“Toadies, mostly. His brother’s a very important man in these here parts. Someone might think to get the man who killed his brother to curry favor with the big boss.”
A chill ran down McBride’s spine.
“That brother doesn’t happen to be Hiram Webster. Does he?”
“’Fraid so, pard.”
“Goldarn it.” McBride grabbed his carbine and saddle bags. As if his motion broke a spell laid over the saloon’s patrons, they started talking. Shouting, mostly. A couple of brave souls finally dared to look at the prone Billy.
“You heard of the man, I reckon.”
“Yeah. I reckon I can forget about working for a man whose brother I just killed.”
The barkeeper frowned as McBride tossed two bits on the counter and left. He forced himself not to run as he made his way to the livery stable. How long would it be before they came after him?
That goldarned idiot, he fumed. Why did he have to do that? Why did he have to make McBride kill him? According to the law the killing was self-defense, and McBride surely wasn’t going to lose any sleep over wasting a bad egg like that. But Billy happened to be Billy Webster, Hiram Webster’s brother. And that meant the law didn’t apply in this case. All that mattered was that Hiram Webster would want his brother avenged. And that meant that a lot of people would be after Justin McBride now.
McBride entered the stable without anyone following. He wondered why. Perhaps the barkeeper was lending an unseen helping hand. Perhaps they were only working their nerve up for the chase.
McBride located the boy he had given his horse to and went over to him.
“Which box is he in?” he asked.
“Over there,” the boy said. “He’s a mighty fine hoss, sir.”
“I know that. I need him now.”
“I wouldn’t do that. He needs his rest.”
“Another horse, then. One that’s fresh and fast and rested. Quickly, boy.”
“Yessir,” the boy said. He rubbed his chin and looked around. “That would be Quigley over there.” He pointed at a medicine hat. “He’s supposed to be half Indian pony. There’s no end to his bottom.”
“Trade him for my horse?”
“I’d do that in a moment. Quigley has a bit of a temper.”
That much was obvious the moment McBride approached Quigley. The horse neighed, reared a bit. He calmed quickly, though, watching McBride through eyes that seemed almost too intelligent.
“There’s quite the commotion out there,” the boy said standing in the door looking out. McBride rushed to the door, peering past the frame. Five men came running from the saloon, directly at them. McBride recognized Chip and Droopy as the leaders.
“I already left,” McBride said, drawing his Peacemaker. The boy looked at the revolver, blanched and nodded. McBride stepped into an empty box and closed the door behind him. Hunched, gun at the ready, he waited for what would happen now.
“You seen a stranger, Timmy?” a rough voice asked. Chip, McBride thought, recognizing the voice.
“One rode in a while ago. Gave me a dollar to livery his horse.”
“The one over there.”
“He still here? If his horse is, I mean.”
McBride bit his lips while Timmy hesitated.
“His horse was tired and just ate. He traded it for another.”
“Which way he gone to?”
McBride didn’t hear any reply. He hoped Timmy was pointing in a direction. He’d have to remember to ask him which way he’d sent them. A moment later, he could hear the men run across the street. He waited another ten heartbeats before he came out of hiding. Keeping to the shadows, he waited until he heard five horses gallop off.
“Which way did you send them?” he asked Timmy. Timmy pointed. McBride nodded. He holstered his Peacemaker and grabbed his saddle. He carried it over to Quigley’s box.
Stupid idea, to give a horse a name, he thought while he saddled up. When he was done, he led the horse to the door. He fished in his pockets, found a five dollar bill and gave it to Timmy.
“Don’t you ever believe that a good deed’s its own reward,” he told the boy with a half-smile. Timmy looked at the bill with wide eyes. When he believed his luck, he quickly put it away. “Which way’d you send them?”
“To the hills,” Timmy said, pointing. “You killed someone?”
“Billy Webster. Fair fight.” McBride mounted the horse.
“Are you in hot water now.”
“So I’ve been told. Tim?”
“Yessir?” The boy beamed at McBride’s use of the more adult version of his name. Apparently, he didn’t get to hear it all that often, if at all.
“Thank you.” McBride held out his hand. Timmy shook it. McBride smiled.
“Where you gonna go?” the boy asked.
“To the hills. Can’t make a liar outta you now, can I?”
“I’m behind them, and I’ll change direction after a while. If they turn around to look for a trail, they’ll think they missed it. By that time, I reckon I’ll be long gone.”
McBride spurred the horse to a fast trot. It was a shame, really. The Webster contract had promised good money. Money he could forget about now. That, and he would miss his old horse.
Then again, that was why a smart man didn’t give his horse a name.
* * *
An hour after turning off the trail, he was lost. He wondered if he could dare make a camp. No. Better not. Not out here in the open, anyway.
At the horizon, he could make out a rise consisting of sharp, jagged lines. It looked like hills.
Timmy had mentioned sending the posse to the hills. They had probably traveled much faster than he. Understandable, since they thought they were chasing a running man. They had also left a couple of minutes before him. He wondered if they had already found out how he’d fooled them, if they were already hot on his heels. Perhaps they had already reached the hills. Would they camp for the night?
All things he would like to know but had no way to find out. He tried to estimate the distance to the hill. Could he make it before night fell? Barely, he thought, if he hurried.
And he did.
It took a couple of minutes to find a place where he could tether his horse — he refused to call it Quigley — where it was safe and had sufficient graze and water. He hobbled it, took off the saddle and rubbed it down. When he was satisfied the horse had everything it needed for the night, he went to find a place for the night for himself.
By the time he had located a cave, it was dark. McBride put his stuff on the ground, took his spyglass from the saddlebags and went to the cave’s mouth. After a moment’s search, he discovered the glow of a campfire. He swore extensively. The posse was closer than he’d hoped.
McBride drew back into the cave. He couldn’t risk a fire. If he did, his pursuers would discover him as easily as he had found them. Going deeper into the cave was no solution either. There seemed to be a second cavern, but if he went there and lit a fire, the smoke would likely kill him.
McBride sighed, settled down, opened a can of beans and ate them cold. He tossed the can, wrapped himself into his blanket and, using the saddle as a headrest, went to sleep.
* * *
The darkness of the cave had swallowed the first rays of light. When McBride came to, he came to with a start.
Overslept, he chided himself. How could you oversleep with a posse on your trail?
A look through the spyglass confirmed his worst fears. The posse had been awakened by first light and was a lot closer now. He couldn’t get on in time.
Time for plan B.
McBride grabbed his saddle and rushed down to where the horse waited. He untied the hobbling line and saddled the horse. The good thing about being in the hills was that there were always a lot of stones around for the taking. He picked up a couple of big ones, wrapped them into his bedroll and tied it to the horse. Then he sent it on its way.
McBride withdrew back into his cave, settling down for what he expected to be a long wait.
Sure enough, the posse arrived at the foot of the hills about an hour later. McBride counted five of them, among them Chip and Droopy. McBride went back inside the cave. All that mattered now was to wait them out. Sooner or later they would have to find the horse’s hoofprints. Weighed down as it was, the prints would be deep enough to fool the trackers. When they rode off to follow the horse, McBride could go another way.
Yeah, and pray you’ll find another horse somewhere along the way. What possessed you to send off your horse knowing you only had the one?
McBride chuckled. That was a problem, all right. Oh well, something would come up. Something always did. With his horse’s headstart, they would hopefully take long enough to catch up that he could vamoose into the woods he had seen, where a horse would be more of a liability than an advantage anyway.
McBride sat down. He wished this part of the cave had enough light for him to at least check his Peacemaker and his Winchester ’73 carbine. It would have been busywork; except for the one shot fired from the revolver earlier, both weapons were fully loaded and in perfect condition.
The light that emanated from the cave wall caught him entirely by surprise. He grabbed his carbine, aimed it at the source of the light.
Nothing happened. Holding his carbine with his right hand, McBride approached the light cautiously. Whatever it was that caused the glow, it looked like a silvery whirlpool. Small at first, it grew rapidly. A sort of wind came forth from it. McBride couldn’t see what caused the light or the wind. The whirlpool seemed to grow from the stone of the cave’s wall. McBride tried to touch it. His hand went in. The moment he touched it, it seemed to make an effort to suck him in.
He drew his hand back out and took a few cautious steps away from the light. He looked at his hand, saw that it was all right. He shuddered.
“What is this thing?”
The whirlpool increased its size in a single burst, creating a gale that almost knocked McBride off his feet. He kept his balance, leaning into the wind, until the monster leaped out of the whirlpool. McBride stepped back, tripped, fell down to land hard on his behind. He pulled the carbine’s trigger by reflex, almost by accident. Of course he missed the creature that reminded him of nothing more than an oversize monkey.
The monster roared, spreading its arms wide. McBride scrabbled backwards. It took him a moment to realize that the screams he heard came from his throat. The monster came at him, reached for him. McBride rolled aside, slapping at the ham-sized hands with his carbine.
He realized that now the monster was between him and the exit.
Oh no. I’m dead.
The monster came at him again. McBride fired, unaimed. He missed. The monster, probably startled by the noise, drew back. It screamed, making itself look bigger. If the purpose of the gesture was to intimidate McBride, it worked.
McBride thought furiously about how long it would take for the beast to get over its confusion and attack. Not long enough. Definitely not long enough. When it did, it would kill him. Even if it didn’t, the noise would most likely attract the posse’s attention. Either way, he was doomed.
McBride grabbed his saddlebags and retreated toward the cave wall, toward the light. Whatever it was, it had let the monster through. It had almost swallowed his hand.
It was some kind of doorway. Had to be.
Right now, it was his only way out of this mess.
Of course, there was the possibility that there was a horde of these monsters on the other side. He was willing to take the chance. If worst came to worst, he could always jump back in and return here.
He held on tight to the carbine and the saddlebags and leaped head-first into the silvery whirlpool.