Gunfire at Salt Fork
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by William Hopson
Category: Historical Fiction
Description: He had a five-notch past and plenty more room on his gun. Carr was coming back and along the silent dusty street of Salt Fork you could almost smell death in the air. In the gray light of morning the four Kendalls waited for him, gun-hot and swaggering--but thinking, too, of the five dead outlaws strung out down Jonathan Carr's back trail. The morning grew brighter--and so did the knowledge that by sundown in Salt Fork there would be burying to do.
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks,
eBookwise Release Date: March 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [217 KB]
Reading time: 141-197 min.
"During the 40s/50s, William Hopson wrote short stories for all the leading Western pulps. Many were dark with an edge to them, which made them stand out from the other "average" fare Western short stories."--August West posted on Vintage Hardboilded Reads.
Jonathan Carr rode into Marlinville a few minutes before midnight and fed his saddle and pack horses from Ad Slocum's stack lot; wondering with grim irony what the angular deputy's reactions would be at daybreak. Like the sheriff, Ad, too, was a boot licker who knew which side of his bread the butter had been smeared on.
The two horses cared for, Carr broke pack and carried his tarp bed beneath Ad's buggy shed. He faced it toward the dim outlines of the town and the jail, a hundred and fifty yards away. He didn't trust Ad any more than he trusted Bert Burton the sheriff. Ad was a violent-tempered loudmouth who talked too much. Burton was a fat sloth who owed his job to vicious old Ples Kendall.
Ples and his sons and the others had known that Carr was now resigned from the Texas Rangers and taking up law practice again. They would know he'd head for Marlinville to see his client, who had killed one of the Kendall sons. Question was what old Ples would do now. Keep his public promise to kill both of them before they reached Salt Fork? Most likely. It wouldn't be the first time he'd made known his intentions, and then followed through.
Carr held no illusions as to whether the old man would keep his word that the prisoner and his lawyer would never get to trial in Salt Fork. The jail was a death trap for Jonathan Carr; his prisoner was the bait, and Carr knew it.
But he had given his word.
Right now the place probably was ringed with armed K Cross men, with Bert Burton sitting in the darkened interior with a sawed-off shotgun cradled across his fat lap.
Carr shrugged away the thought. He would have liked a cup of coffee, late though it was. He settled for a cigarette and went to sleep beneath the shed, midnight stars bright in the black bowl above the drabness of the west Texas horizon ...
Shortly before daybreak, Carr's Ranger-trained ears caught the faint vibrations of cautiously approaching footsteps. That would be Slocum, normally loud and grumbling, coming in to take care of his customers' horses. Mostly K Cross, Carr guessed wryly.
Carr had been asleep on his left side, six-shooter cuddled in his lax right hand--that much five years of trailing cow thieves and desperadoes in the rangers had done to his former habits of easy slumber.
Now he snapped open his eyes without moving otherwise and lay there with senses fully alert. Almost above him was outlined the angular deputy's gaunt figure. Slocum stood four feet away with a long-handled pitchfork gripped hard in his clamped fingers. For a man who had been creeping, his breath was coming hard in a long, even flow, his nostrils probably quivering as he stood in indecision.
Slocum's mind probably was saying yes, but his hands had refused to obey. He knew Jonathan Carr too well, knew that five killer outlaws were strung out down a relentless manhunting trail of the past five years.
Carr grinned and pushed himself up on an elbow, the .44 Colt aslant at the deputy's thin, elongated belly. He'd been counting upon Ad. A man walking into a death trap to get his client free needed information, and Slocum would supply it without being coerced--Ad, the loudmouth.
The muzzle of the .44 shifted its steady gaze from Ad Slocum's face and lined the bright spot that was a cheap badge pinned to the man's shirt front. Slocum said, "Aggghhhh!" and hurriedly dropped the deadly tined thing he'd been tempted to use on Carr. He backed away a step.
"Hold on now, Carr!" he blurted out, and backed up another step. "You got no call to throw a gun on me like that."
"No, not now," came the reply. "You'd have given your soul to have been able to make the lunge and then go running back to tell Ples Kendall how you did the job for him and protected his sons."
"I don't know what'n blazes you're talkin' about!"
"The inference is," Jonathan Carr said, "that I knew you wouldn't hurt me, Ad. I slept beneath your shed for safety. Nobody to get at my back, and an ear against the ground and to the front. What's Ples planning for me, Ad? I got word Duval is riding for him now. Is he one of them waiting around the jail?"
"I don't know what you're talkin' about, I tell you!"
Jonathan Carr came up to a sitting position on his blankets and his voice took on the well-known lash so many people remembered from the past, when he and his father were on a case in the old sod courtroom over in Salt Fork.
"Ad, I'm going to give you some damned good advice. Throw away that cheap, two-bit tin badge Bert Burton gave you. You've no business wearing it. Loudmouths like you who wangle one to bolster up their nerve usually end up getting killed. If you'll do that, and stop playing heel dog to Ples Kendall and his sons, you might live quite a few years longer."
"Look who's talkin'!" the stableman exploded jeeringly, and fell right into the trap. "The whole Kendall family swore they'd never let you take that dirt farmer hand to Salt Fork for trial, includin' Alma. So we'll just see how long somebody stays alive around here today."
Well, Ples Kendall was keeping his word.
Carr shoved the pistol into its sheath inside the cartridge belt coiled beside his pillow. Carefully folding the legs of his black broadcloth trousers, he pulled on soft knee-high boots by tugging at the outside finger loops and rose to his feet, buckling on the belt. One-half of the loops were filled with short cartridges for the .44 Colt six-shooter. The other half contained eight rounds for the .45-70 side-hammer Sharps rifle in his saddle scabbard.
Carr asked, "How are they planning to stop me, Ad?"
"You'll find out," Slocum said, glowering sullenly and fingering the badge on his shirt front as though the touch of it gave courage to the other words forming in his mind.
"Duval, probably," Carr mused aloud. "Even old Ples should be a bit hesitant about killing an ex-Ranger under half a dozen guns. At least I've been figuring that. He wouldn't want his precious sons expended. That leaves Duval and or Dale Hayden, their white-trash cousin."
Ad Slocum found his courage. He sneered at Carr. "Duval, you say? Why, you damn law-book Ranger, young Ed Kendall could let you an' Duval both pull a gun an' kill the two of you. Then we're goin' to take that dirt farmer hand outa jail an' string him--"
Jonathan Carr took two long steps forward and towered over the angular deputy. His mouth turned tight and unfriendly in the increasing light as he grasped Ad Slocum's unwashed shirt front in one hand. With the other he ripped the badge loose and tossed it aside, his brown eyes beginning to smoke.
"Now let me tell you something, you boot-licking son of a bitch," Carr said in quiet fury. "Lee Delaney became my client after he killed Luke Kendall for attacking his wife at my aunt's ranch down on Double Mountain River. I brought him into this country for safekeeping last spring, with a warning to Bert Burton what would happen if anything happened to Lee. You used him to haul your stack lot feed from the sheriff's fields. But I happen to know that his back has been cut to pieces by a blacksnake whip wielded by you and the sheriff. Ad, you'd better be pretty damned careful how you talk and what you do today!"
He pulled the man closer and shook him. "Where is that sheriff? Where are they all?"
He pushed the man away as though the touch had dirtied his hands. Slocum, now certain he was in no actual danger at the moment, found raging courage and gave tongue to it.
"Go find him your ownself, Carr! Ask me, and be damned to you. I'm not afraid of your gun or Ranger's badge any more. Neither will anybody else be after today. You won't git outa town alive with Delaney. If you do, neither of you'll ever make it past K Cross roundup wagons to Salt Fork, because by sundown you an' your preachin' dirt farmer will be dead."
He bent, fuming, and began to hunt around for the badge. He straightened with it in one hand and fumbled to pin it back on, the corners of his mouth quivering. He'd worn that badge of Burton's for almost two months, and loved the mild authority it carried. It had given him courage to tell Carr a thing or two right to his very face--and now he'd do it again.
"Alma Kendall is in town with two of her brothers, Ed and Link," the deputy said, his small dark eyes gleaming with savage satisfaction. "Dale Hayden is with 'em. They've been waitin' around three or four days for you to show up after the client who killed one of their brothers. Duval, you said? Duval, hell! Ed don't need 'im. He don't even need Link and Dale, mister."
Well, that cleared up that part of it anyhow. The jail wasn't ringed, and Carr now frowned at the thought. Old Ples must be pretty sure of his sons to play it like this. And Alma! Carr had no illusions about her, either.
"It won't work, Ad," Carr said softly to the deputy, and shook his head. "If that's the story they sent you to tell, you'd better think up another one. Ples and his men are here."
"But I tell you they ain't!" Slocum cried out vehemently. The man was almost begging to be believed. "He's got the fall roundup crew working on the county line, along the stagecoach road between here an' Salt Fork."
Carr returned the bedroll to his pack and then crossed to the short bench by the office wall, where Slocum kept soft rain water and basins and dirty towels for his trade. So that was how things shaped up? One of several plans came into his mind, one he thought might work. And that was contingent upon the old man and his K Cross crew not getting in on time.
That they would come was almost a certainty. He'd come and he'd bring men such as Duval and Jules MacCandless with him.
Carr drank thirstily from the night-cooled tin dipper, bathed his hands and face, drying them with a clean handkerchief. He retied the black string tie at the buttoned collar of his white shirt.
Strange, he thought with fleeting irony, how the years had never changed his habit of wearing white shirts--except nights when there was an undercover job to be done. His father had been like that too. In courtrooms.
Slocum, gloweringly intent and now more uneasy than ever because he'd been tricked into blabbing information, shot him furtive glances and wondered how he could get word to Alma and the others over in the lone hotel. He threw more armfuls of maize roughage over the fence; fall cut stuff he'd bought and hauled out of the sheriff's own fields, aided by the mild-mannered dirt farmer who'd turned killer when Luke Kendall turned rapist, and then turned religious in jail. Just let Carr give him a gun and see what happened! The roughage fell with a rustle of leaves amid the outlines of converging horses and Carr, thinking of Alma Kendall, moved away.
Ad had lived up to his reputation as a loudmouth and, in doing so, faced Carr with a problem he'd never have counted on: meeting the woman he'd once loved, backed by two tough young brothers and a gunfighting cousin named Dale Hayden.
Marlinville's lone cafe was a dim light in a sleep-drugged street, the heavy-hipped widow not a stranger. She was the one who cooked for the prisoner, who listened to the talk of Sheriff Bert Burton, who had written Carr regularly of how the man had been treated by Burton and Ad Slocum.
Carr accepted the coffee cup from her, standing near the stove, and then moved back from the end of the short counter to one of three small tables. It put his back to a wall and his eyes to the front door.
"What time does the sheriff usually come for Lee's breakfast, Mrs. Long?" he asked the woman.
"Usually midmorning, because Bert is a very lazy man, Mr. Carr. But lately he's been hanging around the jail nights, expecting you to slip in and get Lee, poor fellow. What do you suppose will happen to him?"
He said, "Lee? According to Ad Slocum, Ples Kendall and his crew will take care of Lee, and me too, on the way to Salt Fork today."
Leisurely footsteps, about four sets of them, were coming along the hard-packed dirt from the direction of the town's lone squalid hotel. That would be Alma and her two cocky brothers and Dale Hayden. Jonathan Carr thought, I'll know in a few moments now, and felt a sudden dread inside.
Mrs. Long was busy carving large slices of ham for breakfast. Carr sat sipping the bitter black coffee and waiting, finding a fleeting thought for the wonders of morning transmutation: a world changing from dark to gray in the drabness of the street outside.
In the dim glow of a lone soot-blackened lamp chimney his eyebrows had become a solid bar beneath a black hat much smaller of brim than the big ones worn by plainsmen who didn't have to run cattle--or wanted outlaws--through south brush country canyons. The hat was four-fingered into a sharp peak on top and the brim didn't quite hide the bleakly thoughtful cast of Jonathan Carr's prominent features. They looked shadowed and grim.
They'd all be saying, of course, that he'd deliberately turned in his badge in order to bait the Kendall clan and settle the thing with gunfire before the trial in Salt Fork courthouse. Like his father before him, he'd go to any lengths to free a client. He'd free a client and, at the same time, settle a five-year grudge old Ples held against him. He'd be fighting Alma Kendall.
He hadn't seen her since that wild day last spring in Salt Fork when he'd taken Delaney out of their kill-crazy hands and slapped Alma down into the dirt, threatening to kill Ed and Link, threatening to shoot their older brother Poke, the sheriff in Salt Fork. Poke, the eldest of the outfit had sat in his office in the courthouse and made no move to interfere as his sister and two younger brothers started in to lynch a helpless man and then riddle his body with lead.
Coffee cup in hand, Jonathan Carr sat waiting as she came in, followed by Link and Ed and the gaunt-eyed figure of their cousin, Dale Hayden.
Link was a dark-featured man of twenty-five, a fiery Kendall to the core and a bad man to meet when he'd had a few drinks. He hadn't been drinking this morning, and no matter what he might have felt at the prospect of throwing a gun against Jonathan Carr, it didn't show. He sat down at the counter and began to read aloud from a calendar on the wall back of the water jar. The picture on the calendar was that of Jesus.
Carr found himself studying Ed first. Ed was younger than Link by a year or two, tawny, blocky-shouldered. Cruel to horses, which he rode with filed spur rowels, Ed Kendall could laugh and joke with Link. Most of the time he was the quiet one who listened instead of talking. He'd be the one to watch if gunfire exploded this morning.
Carr dismissed him with that thought and only then let his bleak eyes cover the woman he once would have married. The change of five years was upon her, of even those past few months since that rage-filled day last spring. He had sensed it in her mannish stride, the swish of her duck riding skirt, the rattle of her spurs, the significantly harsh sound made by the slapping of her gauntlets beside Link's hat upon the counter.
In the determination to kill Lee Delaney, and possibly himself, she appeared to have dealt herself into a man's game; and he wondered if, when the showdown came, she could abide by a man's rules.
"Let's have some coffee here, Mrs. Long," Alma Kendall said, and pushed back at her russet hair. "I had a couple of drinks in my room last night to cut the boredom, and now I need some black coffee to cut their aftertaste this morning."
She'd be about twenty-eight now, Carr thought, and then wondered how he could ever forget. The lines around her once-soft mouth had changed and he found himself wondering if unmarried maturity or her more active role in the Kendall affairs had brought about the mutability of mind now displayed. It wasn't becoming; her mouth once had been soft and passionate and demanding.
Dale Hayden sat leaning forward, elbows on the counter, morose, his long spine curving in the habitual slouch of a tall man in the saddle. He paid no attention to sudden rough laughter between Link and Ed Kendall. He shoved back his wide-brim plains hat with its tall rounded peak that could swallow a man's face and ears. He ran a hand nervously across the sad droop of his sand-colored mustache.
He said to Alma, "He's got to show up here between now and noon. Unless he's got something foxy up his sleeve, he's damn near got to."
"He'll show," she replied in off-hand assurance.
"Sure, and probably with one of his ranger friends covering him with a badge and two guns."
"No, he'll come alone."
"You seem mighty certain, Alma."
"I know Jonathan a whole lot better than you do."
"Hell, you ought to," Link broke in and exploded with laughter. "He used to make love to you plenty." He whacked Ed on the back. Alma didn't appear to be disturbed at the insinuation.
She said quietly, "Lee Delaney worked for the Carr family before the war. He stayed behind with Miss Melissa until Jonathan's father came home. He was working on Miss Melissa's ranch when--well, when this trouble broke. It would be a matter of principle with Jonathan to come back and defend his aunt's hired hand."
"He'd better think about defending himself with a six-shooter," Hayden grunted morosely and patted his own weapon significantly. He looked over at Link for further confirmation of a previous arrangement between the two of them.
Link returned the glance of his angular cousin and laughed. Hayden was the poor white trash of the Kendall clan, and Link possessed a devilish, cruel proclivity for searching out men's weakness and putting the barbs in deep. Hayden, when not accepting occasional largesse at the Kendall ranch headquarters and the big house in Salt Fork, lived alone in a shack down in the Double Mountain breaks. There he had time to drink his raw moonshine whisky in morose solitude and to draw his gun and snap it at imaginary enemies, to brood over Alma Kendall and his own low position in the lordly Kendall clan, and to think of the two men he had killed and the brother that Jonathan Carr had shot five years before.
Link knew of these things and used them as barbs to be driven in cruelly. He laughed again and then winked at his brother Ed.
"Sure he'll show, Dale. When Jonathan pulled off his badge and decided to defend Lee Delaney in court, he pulled his Ranger protection with it. This morning you got a free hand for the first time in five years. But we won't have time to bury you today, cousin. Have to come back and do it later."
He went off into gleeful whoops and Carr thought, watching Link. He's been getting away with it since he was a cocky young buck of sixteen. He's always known that any time he ever went in over his head he had behind him a crew of Kendall's K Cross punchers to pull him out. I've a hunch that Link is going to be in for a very unpleasant surprise one of these days.
"Link, you stop that kind of talk," Alma said sharply. "I want no killing in Marlinville today."
Link's prodding grin faded and his black eyes went agate hard. He sneered openly at his sister. "Sure you don't. No woman does, not after the gent in question was once engaged to marry her. But we're going to get that dirt farming son of a bitch, and I'm going to kill Jonathan too. You been thinkin' you got Pa and Poke under your thumb. You're going to find out in a damn little while that you ain't got Ed and me by the ear. Not yet, you ain't!"
At the stove Mrs. Long had lifted the frying pan and removed two eggs and placed them on a platter beside thick slices of smoked ham. Studiously concentrating her attention upon the food, she spoke in a barely controlled voice. "I'll have the coffee in just a minute, Miss Kendall," and added four hot biscuits from the oven.
She straightened, hesitated, and then picked up a saucer of butter. Carrying the platter in her other hand she went to the table where, in the dim light, Jonathan Carr sat with elbows on the oilcloth, something saturnine making a cast over his features. Alma turned slowly on the stool, and only then did she and her brothers and Dale Hayden become aware that somebody else was present in the little restaurant.
Link Kendall's nostrils pinched in and then flared warningly. His body went tense, but Jonathan Carr's biting voice stopped him cold.
"Not one move, Link. I always had the feeling that some day you'd talk loud at the wrong time, when the K Cross outfit wasn't around to keep you from getting your guts shot out."
"That's no way for a lawyer to talk, counsellor," Link grinned, his eyes weighing his chances. Carr's elbows were still on the table. "Or maybe you just been away from law books too long."
"A barrister's language level must be gauged by the subject to whom he's speaking, Link. Mine seems to fit the occasion."
"An even break, Jonathan," Link Kendall said softly. "Just give me an even break and I won't need Ed and Dale, and you won't ever again need them law books."
Carr put down his cup. Mrs. Long had hastily backed away and turned to the stove. Jonathan Carr said harshly, "I never wanted it this way, but that's how the chips fall now. Get over your foolish ambition of trying to gun-rep yourself into a Texas Ranger's job, Link. As I told Ad Slocum this morning, you'll live longer not wearing a badge."
Hayden had stiffened and then slowly let his long curving spine slump again. Can's right hand was out of sight beneath the table now, and Hayden was glad to let matters rest for the moment. One of his brothers hadn't been content to let matters rest, and he'd been buried over in the cemetery in Salt Fork these past five years. Carr had shot swiftly.
Hayden had waited five years. He could afford to wait a bit longer now.
Carr said, "That's more like it, Dale. Link grew up loud, but you're old enough to know better. You boys just slide those guns across the counter and let's hear them all drop on the floor back of it."
His right hand lifted above the edge of the table, gripping a walnut-handled six-shooter. He laid it on the brown-and-white checkered oilcloth to the right of his plate. It was like the oldtime cowmen who, sitting down to a high-stake poker game, often laid their guns on the table. No direct threat intended; merely a notice to the others that the game was to be played above the table.
That .44 Colt single-action had killed five Mexican and American outlaws during the past five years. It also had killed Dale Hayden's brother in a gunfight that had repped Jonathan Carr into the Texas Rangers against his wishes.