GENERAL TOPICS > Saddlebag Tales

The Stick River Killers (solo)

(1/1)

Queasy Dillo:
Norris could feel it. Whether the chilled morning air sharpened or dulled the sensation of being watched was debatable. But there was no question he felt it. Crouched by the ashes of the previous night’s fire, he picked the stub of a cigar from his teeth and ground the ashes against a nearby rock. While the one hand scraped the ashen remains of the paper, the other slid under the flap of the nearby saddlebag, from which he drew a well-used belt. Glancing between the rising hills under the horizon and the belt he counted off the cartridges he had left. Fourteen cold brass casings passed beneath his fingers. Not enough. Not nearly.

He threw off his wool blanket and slowly stood up to stretch and take care of some early-morning business. First he tossed his wool duster over a convenient scrub-tree limb and buckled the gunbelt around his waist. Supposing someone might actually be watching, he wanted the .44 and its lead contents to be a surprise. He reclaimed the duster and pulled it back on, painfully aware that the morning cold had done away with whatever warmth remained in the thick wool. If nothing else, his feet were still remotely warm. He’d tried sleeping without boots once. Some lessons never left him, and the consequences of being dead from the knees down was one of them.

Worse, this wasn’t just a dry cold. This was a damp, clammy cold, the kind he used to wake up to December mornings in Galveston. Fortunately—if there was a fortunate side to this—the southern part of the New Mexico territory was rarely humid for long. He expected rain before within a few hours, likely before noon. A second glance at the mercurial sky pushed that guess forward an hour or so. The realization alerted him to a creeping numbness in his fingers. Reaching into his saddlebag he found a pair of thin leather gloves, then set to boiling water for a cup of coffee.

While he waited for the tiny fire to heat the cupful of half-frozen stream water, he took his field glasses from the bag and swept them across the surrounded mountains, west to east in a long, slow arc. He paused to watch a winter-coated deer as grazed through the rough scrub that dotted the hills before finishing the sweep and spotting nothing. He checked again and put the glasses away. Before leaving he’d check again, just to make sure he was alone.

Seeing the walking venison reminded Norris that he hadn’t eaten since early yesterday. The rumbling from his gut only drove home the point. Once again he went to the saddlebag and this time withdrew a small slab of dried, salted beef. He hacked a corner off and set the piece in his teeth. Two or three minutes from now it would be soft enough to be considered edible. Dried salt beef tasted like shoe leather, but rumor had it that sagebrush tasted worse.


A short eternity later the first miniscule bubbles appeared, clinging to the sides of the cup. Norris tapped it with a finger and watched the silver orbs scurry up to the surface. No sooner had they vanished than fresh ones sprung up to take their place. About time, he thought, already back in the saddlebag and searching for the paper wrapped filled with coffee. He was going to eat something resembling breakfast by God, and if anybody was watching him they’d have to wait. If somehow they didn’t have the patience, he had no trouble shooting while chewing.

Still searching in the bag, he wondered if there were any sundry foodstuffs he might have missed. He’d have liked to have a bit of hardtack along even though you needed iron teeth to eat the stuff. Of course, it wasn’t so bad after a little while in frying bacon grease. Naturally, you needed bacon as a source of bacon grease and he was fresh out of both. Before long—maybe two or three days—his U.S. Government-stamped Army Corps of Engineers-approved map said he’d run into another town. He could deal with the short supplies then. As for now, he could rough it on dried meat and water.

Norris dumped the grounds into the cup and went back to where he’d been sleeping. Grabbing the blanket, he gave it a couple of good whacks against the stunted scrub tree to try and shake some of the debris off. When it was reasonably free of dirt he folded and rolled the blanket. The saddle blankets, which had been between him and the dirt, he shook out and hung over the scrub tree to air out.

His horse, alternately known as either ‘Horse’ or in some cases, ‘Boy,’ was perhaps fifty feet from the campsite and searching the scrub for any palatable plants. At least he hadn’t chewed the hobbles off this time. The animal had done that once; eaten through the leather restraints about his front legs and gone for a stroll in the desert. He’d come back—eventually. Feeling his owner’s gaze, Horse raised his head. There was a brief staring match between them and Horse, just as quickly losing interest, dropped his head to the nearest plant and went back to work.

Turning his attention elsewhere, Norris judge the coffee to be ready for drinking. He picked the cup up by the rim and took a sip, scowling almost before he’d swallowed the stuff. ‘Coffee’ wasn’t the term. Flavored water might be more appropriate. Dirt-flavored water was even closer to the truth. Had it not been warm he would’ve tossed it without a second thought. He took another cautious sip, needing the heat but dreading the taste. When he finished he considered the contents at the bottom. Among them were the actual coffee grains, what he assumed to be river mud, and a small pebble he didn’t remember collecting.

With the water in the cup muddy as it was, things weren’t looking well for what was left in the canteen. The source had been a stream he’d crossed not two days before. It hadn’t looked murky, though it was becoming readily apparent he hadn’t looked quite hard enough. Out of idle curiosity he untied the canteen from his saddle and tasted the water. He’d been chewing dust the past few days, so he guessed he hadn’t really noticed the taste then, but he could sure taste it now. Closing the canteen, he resisted the urge to dump the rest.

He tossed the sediment and put everything back in the saddlebag. Halfway through, he had the strangest sensation of being watched, this time stronger than the last. Glancing up, he saw nothing out of the ordinary. Whether or not there was anyone out there, the hook was set. The cold tendrils of unease crawled down his back. Any warmth he had previously felt disappeared in a heartbeat.

“Horse,” he called, unwilling to spend another minute in the open.

Horse raised up again, snorting and flicking his ears back and forth.

Rather than lugging his gear to the gelding, Norris figured it’d be easier to get the mount and then retrieve the gear. On his way he pushed his overcoat back enough to allow him quick access to the Colt should it be needed. That wasn’t going to do much to the pursuers if they had a rifle, but if they were settled in and hidden with a rifle he was out of luck anyway. He walked through the knee-high scrub, distantly wondering if there were any snakes in here. He found none and reached Horse without incident.

“Hey, boy,” he rubbed Horse’s muzzle to distract the animal while he was changing out the primitive halter with a bridle. The horse failed to react until the bit came into play. Clearly, Norris’ mount wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about this new proceeding and tried to turn and back away. Norris had counted on the dodge and accordingly left the hobbles on for the occasion. Several argumentative minutes later the rider had bested the horse and both returned to the campsite.

Norris tied the reins to the scrub tree before starting on the well-practiced morning ritual of refitting his horse. It was more a less a reaction now; something he seldom thought about, if ever. First went the blanket—easy enough, since Horse had learned the blankets were nothing worth fighting. The saddle…the saddle was a whole other question. Horse would fight then, provided he saw what was transpiring. Norris faced his animal south and threw the saddle on from the north.


He waited a moment in case Horse had been holding air and used the opportunity to take a last look at his campsite. Finding nothing left that could be considered useful, he turned to the saddle. Sure enough, the cinches hung slack under the horse’s ribcage. With the exception of a few tamed mustangs, every horse he’d ever ridden had pulled the same trick. Or tried to, anyway. He tightened the buckles until the slack was gone and rubbed Horse’s neck.

“Keep trying, brother,” he murmured.

With that, Norris stepped into the stirrup and tossed his leg over. His new position astride the animal gave him a much better view of the scrub, though he found precious little to keep his interest. The sky was raked over with dull silver clouds, the threat of rain looming silently over the low scrub and cactus. A cooling breeze teased the bushes and tugged at his hat, carrying with it a faraway hint of rain. Muted thunder tolled from the south. Another look with the field glasses said he was alone. Instinct argued otherwise.

Either way, he had made preparations.

Moving from the pommel of his saddle, his gloved hand slipped down to the butt of the short-barreled coachman’s shotgun, held upright in a boot before his right leg. Leaving the muzzles in the bottom of the boot thumbed the tang lever and let the stock fell back. Two unfired shells gleamed dully from the cylinders. Norris pushed the gun back together and tucked the glasses into the saddlebag. What business he had here was concluded.

Horse nickered, as if to agree to the unspoken sentiment.

“Yeah I know, boy,” Norris rubbed the animal’s neck a second time. “See if we can’t make Placer by dark tonight.”

Horse shook his head and sidestepped uneasily, having found no more like here than the rider on his back. Norris slapped the reins lightly and turned towards the hills. Out of habit he tapped the back of his hand to the coach gun. Just for luck.

Queasy Dillo:
In Norris’ life of hunting men, there had been few situations where he would have preferred a bedroll and fire to a hotel room.  A hotel, even the worst of hotels, was any number of things.  Warm was one.  Dry was another.  More often than not the prospect of spending a warm, dry night on a bed and a mattress was enough to convince him to part with a few more dollars than usual—especially during the winter months.  So far, Placer had been the only exception.  As it was he was none too eager to stop now, armed and during the daylight hours. 

From what he’d heard there had been a short time when the town was borderline respectable.  Those years had come after the War, when Southerners with nothing left and carpetbaggers with nothing to lose went west.  A few had been lucky enough to find silver in the hills around Placer—at which point things went downhill, and fast.  Those few veins present played out in a matter of months.  What remained was a boomtown atmosphere with a dearth of lawmen and a shortage of men bold or fool enough to try. 

Little by little, things descended into complete disorder.  Any number of gangs had carved out their chunk of the carcass and word in the next town over was that they were clashing almost nightly.  Quite frankly, Norris didn’t see much to fight over; most of the unfortunates stuck here were living under canvas, roughly arrayed along mud streets pockmarked with puddles of brackish water and lined on either side by channels of sewage.  On occasion the stink would get bad enough to require attention—which usually meant a handful of unfortunates shoveled sand into the offending mess until the odor lifted somewhat. 

That being the case, Placer had at least a little redeeming value.  Most of the people who came through were looking for or running from trouble in one form or another.  Whatever their reasons—greed, too many reward posters with their name, or the draw of fellow criminals—few lawmen felt the urge to follow them.  It was tolerable in the respect that it kept the dregs of the territories safely out of the way of polite society and civilization in general.  Of course, there were honest citizens.  Foolish perhaps, but not threatening. 

Fools there usually fell into one of two groups.  First were the flotsam that fancied themselves great gunfighters.  This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering they showed up, usually shot their mouth off to the wrong people, and wound up in a shallow grave.  While unpleasant, Norris saw this as good because it managed to keep the number of would-be outlaws to a comfortable minimum. 

Second were the miners that had come with delusions of striking it rich.  Those were the type who sold everything they had, secured whatever was left in a wagon or on pack animals, and started for the fabled boomtowns in the west.  Things were drastically different when they arrived.  Most had not anticipated just how primitive Placer was, nor had they expected the taxes demanded by whichever gang happened to be nearest.  Those who didn’t manage to sneak out usually went broke inside of two months.  The ones who tried and failed ended up facedown in the ditches along the roads leading out or possibly dumped in a shallow hole past the treeline. 
   
Pausing at the southern edge, Norris gave the town a long, hard look.  He was none too excited to go.  Trouble was, he had only enough food to last him three days, possibly four.  For all the drawbacks and hazards, this was the closest available settlement.  He would be in town only as long as it took to buy food and ammunition and, with any luck, would conduct his business and be one his way in a few minutes.  Finally he took the coachgun from its boot and broke it across the saddle.  He didn’t expect trouble, but he wasn’t taking chances either. 
   
He had never had any problems with the locals.  The ones who might have been respectable citizens anywhere else were too thoroughly cowed to be much of a threat.  They would file quietly along, occasionally looking up from the ground and very rarely speaking, especially to an outsider.  The rest—the gangs, pickpockets, and two-bit thugs—had discerned that he was a hunter of men and found it in their best interests to let him alone; after all, he wouldn’t stay long and he most likely wasn’t hunting one of their number.  It was a kind of uneasy respect. 
   
The new arrivals were the most threatening of the bunch.  Fresh in from the territories and parts east, they were the ones itching to make a name for themselves any way they could.  Killing a federal bounty hunter would do the trick, as would a lawman or a public official.  Seeing as how the latter two were sparse around these parts, Norris would be the next best thing.  That he was carrying six hundred dollars in his saddlebag wouldn’t hurt, either.  He doubted there was a thousand in the entire town. 
   
Down he went to Placer on the main road.  Sagging canvas tents and rotting wooden shacks rose on either side, an eyesore stretching back into more of the same.  Small groups of filthy children flitted through the tent city, unconcerned by the squalor around them.  Here and there a group of townspeople would be gathered, falling silent and following the intruder with their eyes until he passed from earshot.  A few only stood ankle deep in mud and filth and stared at the world through hollow eyes, seeing but not comprehending. 

   Adding to the strange atmosphere was the terrain.  From where he’d started at the south edge of town, the road descended along a series of shallow bends.  The center of town lay in the bottom of a bowl-like depression, surrounded on all sides by mountains discolored by mine tailings and dotted with tunnel entrances.  The continued flow of miners and restricted space in town had also forced some denizens to pitch their tents on isolated flat spots on the slope.  To Norris it was all one big eyesore for which the only real cure would be by fire or flood.  Repair was out of the picture at this point.  Nonetheless, Placer had food and ammunition and those were the two things he needed most at the moment. 

   Finding the mercantile wasn’t terribly difficult.  Built of stone blasted from the mines, it bore more than a passing similarity to bank buildings back in civilization, right down to the iron bars affixed over the windows.  Running a business here was a shaky proposition.  The old store, since destroyed, had been robbed three times—the first day of business, too.  The owner, having figured out he was trying to run an honest business in a den of thieves, came back a few months later with the current building.  He also refused to allow customers into the store.  Rather, he took orders through a window at the side and returned with the requested goods.  Norris preferred the arrangement because he didn’t have to leave Horse unattended. 

   There was a short line at the window when he arrived.  Norris reined Horse off the street and to the end, behind a pale, light-haired woman with a strained face and small army of brats running circles around her.  One was so bold as to run underneath Horse.  After ten or twenty minutes and a rather heated argument, the herd had finished their shopping and gone back to whatever they called home.  He nudged the animal forward to the window, where the shopkeeper was waiting.

   “Mr. Morse.” The shopkeeper recognized Norris, but in three years had yet to get his name right.  Part deaf, so he claimed.  He had explained it all once, though Norris had mostly forgotten the details.  The reasoning had something to do with Winfield Scott, Mexico, and field artillery.

   “Yup.  Got a list today.”

   “Eh?  Oh, oh…a list.  Well let’s have it”—the old man took the scrap of paper and read off the contents.  “Potatoes…salt beef…coffee…this everything?”

   “And a box of .44-40 Winchester, if you have any.”

   “We have that…” the shopkeeper wandered into the storeroom, muttering to himself.  When he came back he carried a burlap sack.  Setting the bag on the counter he made a measured series of stabs at the keys of his register.

   “That’ll come to a dollar fifty-seven,” he finally declared.

   Without a word Norris found the correct amount and handed over the coins.

   “Gold,” the storekeeper rasped.  “Doing good these days, eh?”

   “As good as could be expected.”

   “Well you take care, Mr. Morse.  Good day.”

   “And the same to you, sir,” Norris flicked the brim of his hat and reined Horse back from the window.  He didn’t bother waiting around to sort his purchases; everything went into the saddlebag.  For the moment he had more pressing concerns.  Chief among then was that he’d just paid in gold in a penniless town.  If the toughs and the thieves hadn’t known he was carrying money, they knew by now.  Already a street urchin had taken notice.  He was waiting beside the main road, hands outstretched.  In the blink of an eye two more joined him.  Norris knew if he didn’t get moving fast those three would turn into a mob. 

   He kept an eye on the little beggars as Horses trotted to the street.  They followed—six of them, now, all waving with empty hands.  And just when he thought the situation couldn’t get any uglier one of the smaller ones started shouting, a high, piercing screech that froze everybody in sight.  Norris glanced to the street, uncomfortably aware that three more—bigger ones this time—were attempting to block his departure. 

   His options were dwindling.  There were a few of the obvious—go for the Colt, drop of few of them, and probably get bludgeoned to death while he was trying to reload; run and hope none of them could keep up; or he could try buying his way out.  The first option was out.  The second wasn’t much better.  He was unwilling to consider the third.  Instead, he found another.  Reaching back into the saddlebag he felt around the bottom until his fingers encountered a cool, smooth cylinder.  The empty brass in his fingers was about the right size and color—good enough to be mistaken for a coin, at any rate.  Norris tossed the casing in the general direction of the beggars.  While the brass was still airborne he put his spurs to Horse and charged for the road. 

   Only when he was well past the northern edge of town did he allow the animal to slow.  Stopping at the lip of the depression, he glanced back down the trail.  None had following him outside town.  One less thing to worry about on his part.  From here he would keep moving north.  The next stop was a town by the name of Black’s Canyon, then on to Relay.  By a fortunate coincidence, he was also hunting a man last spotted in Black’s Canyon.  It’d be an eighteen-hour ride, but those were nothing new.  He’d need every hour of daylight be could get.

   Behind him, Placer lay under a reddening sky lit by pinpricks of light from campfires and lanterns.  To the wandering passer-by it would seem nothing more than a sleepy mining town.  Secluded, promising maybe.  Returning the shotgun to its boot Norris shrugged off a late-evening chill.  He knew better. 

Queasy Dillo:
 

The first of the rain caught them in the open.  By now they were moving slower, having kept on most of the night.  That faint red glow over the rounded mountaintops was about as welcome a sight as Norris could have asked.  If nothing else, it meant they’d put enough distance between them and Placer to discourage any followers.  In the slim chance that didn’t happen, any pursuers who had the drive would have had a rough time tracking them.

Norris, who’d done his share of tracking, knew that it damn near impossible in mountains, especially the coarse gravel, dry gravel that dominated here.  Even thoroughly saturated, the stuff just wouldn’t hold a track.  The only thing worse was trying to trail somebody or something that had run up the middle of a stream.  But for now the terrain was working in his favor.  He hoped to be a good ways gone from Placer by the time he lost the advantage. 

Reaching into the duster, he searched the inside pocket for his map.  While Horse ambled along on his meandering course Norris unfolded the weathered paper.  Hundreds of graven brown lines crisscrossed the map, holdovers from times he’d been in a hurry and stuffed it in the pocket without bothering to pay attention to the folds.  Among other marks were the ones he’d made; suitable shelters, the presences of various game animals, grazing land, and the presence of water, usually creeks too small for the government to make note of.   In short, he’d drawn up the perfect map for a horseman, or horsemen, as the case might have been.

Almost immediately a thick raindrop hit and ran down the paper.  He committed the basic layout of the surroundings to memory and stuffed it back in the pocket.  The rain was starting down in earnest.  Over the mountains to the north, he could only make out the barest details of a gathering of thunderheads.  No lightning yet, but he could pick up the faraway drum roll of thunder.  If this kept up they’d have a fine New Mexico storm cooked up before dark. All the more reason to find someplace dry and quiet, he reasoned.  No point in being needlessly miserable.

   Norris had a couple of reasons for being here.  Of lesser priority was an outlaw by the name of Otto Geitlin who—as renegades went—was more nuisance than threat.  Geitlin was the sort who’d probably last five or six minutes in a place like Placer.  Whether he was bold enough or stupid enough to venture that way was open to speculation.  As it stood, Geitlin hadn’t actually killed anybody or dynamited a bank or even gone as far as arranging a holdup.  A thief by trade, he’d built a reputation on stealing horses.  Now horse thieves weren’t especially odd in this part of the country and normally this wouldn’t have been cause for a bounty hunter to get involved.  Problem was, Geitlin had begun to make a habit of stealing the wrong animals, specifically those with the U.S. Army’s brand on the flank. 

   He wasn’t bankrupting the Army and he was nowhere near being worth the big money the government handed out for the big fish.  The price stood at $500 live or $400 dead, so long as the remains were recognizable.  Geitlin had a noose and a long last step waiting for him.  Even so, they’d only pay that extra hundred if they got the exclusive right to his ultimate demise.  Of course they’d still be happy—to the tune of four hundred, no less—to have him gone, regardless of cause.

   With his pockets getting emptier by the day, Norris had settled on this Geitlin character as an opportune excursion on his journey north.  His real reason had a greater draw but was ultimately more difficult to fathom.  He had, in one pocket or another, a simple note from the Denton Logging Company of southern Colorado calling him.  Why—and what they might have planned—he was not aware.

   Whatever their intent, they were offering a thousand for simply appearing.  He thought that was a square deal, especially if he wasn’t going to have to do any tracking, detaining or killing.  And that much would’ve been a good deal even if the opposite was true.  Money was money in the end and a bundle like that would keep him going for quite a while.  Having long since memorized the message it relayed, he folded the notice and put it away.  Enough business for now. 

They made Black’s Canyon in the early hours after midnight, and Norris could have sworn their tail had returned.  He’d looked long and hard every couple of minutes since they left.  Still no sign, just that uneasy feeling in the gut.  An unpleasant side effect was that his nerves were becoming strained beyond his usual limit.  The end result wasn’t going to be pretty for anybody who came across as abnormally bothersome. 
Though a mining town, Black’s Canyon was about as far removed from Placer as you could get.  The town wasn’t altogether planned, but at the same time, streets and avenues had been established once the original tent city came down, due largely to the influence of a Philadelphia draftsman who’d come west hoping to get rich off gold-mining.  Eventually he’d became more preoccupied with laying out a burgeoning city, something that earned him a respectable bank account in the end.

In Norris’ mind, that was one of the things that lent the territories and western states such strong appeal back east.  Yes, it was wild.  Yes, it was rough.  But maybe, just maybe, you’d be among the lucky ones, the people who migrated out and someday picked and blasted their way into an especially rich vein.  The beauty of it was that you didn’t even have to mine ore to strike it rich. 

A blacksmith or tailor who came in early and got themselves entrenched could, over the first few years, build up a considerable clientele.  If you didn’t mind replacing the furniture every couple of weeks and had a good supply of hard liquor on a regular basis you could make a living thinning out the paycheck of anybody and everybody with a thirst that water couldn’t cure.  Those were the kinds of work Norris had neither the inclination or patience to do.

He slowed Horse when they reached the edge of town.  Black’s Canyon wasn’t a place he’d be hesitant about sleeping.  Further up the street he spotted a stable, and a few buildings down and across the street a hotel.  Both looked decent, enough so for his standards.  He weighed the money in his pocket against the draw of another night in a warm bed and suitable food and shelter for Horse.  He’d be pushing things a bit, but the way he figured he’d be able to afford both if he avoided spending any more on excesses. 

Somewhat reluctantly he dragged his attention back to why he was here.  To start his search for Geitlin he’d check in with the various saloons and gambling halls.  From there he’d try the houses of ill repute and then the hotels and flophouses.  If by that time he wasn’t having any better luck he’d see about finding accommodation for the night for Horse and himself. 

   First on the list, before looking for Geitlin, even, was a visit to the local marshal’s office, if for no other reason than to warn whatever law within earshot that he was here after a horse thief wanted dead or alive by the Federal government and that it might very easily come to pass that they’d have a running gun battle tearing through their fair town before long.  He also wanted to see if they’d even seen Geitlin lately.  If not, he saw no point in sticking around, hotel or no. 
Finding the marshal’s office was no trouble.  Set near the center of the town, not far from the city hall building, a sign across the front loudly proclaimed the structure’s purpose.  He tied Horse out front and pushed the door open.  To emphasize his point he loosed the coach gun from its boot and brought it along.  He made sure to break the gun over for the purpose of declaring himself as non-threatening. He’d learned that lesson, and very nearly learned it the hard and final way.  Needless to say the experience stuck with him.

The lone attendant—undoubtedly bored by pulling the midnight watch—sat up from a semi-dozing state on seeing this newcomer.  Carrying a scattergun, no less.  Suddenly the early shift wasn’t quite as boring.  His hand inched toward the pistol in the drawer of his desk, stopping only when he realized the stranger posed no great threat to himself or the lone prisoner sleeping off a sentence in the cell in back. 

“You looking for something, stranger?”

“A man named Geitlin.  Horse thief.  You seen him?” Norris answered.

   “Oh, I wouldn’t know nothing about that.  We got a man named Geitlin, sure.  Ain’t never done nothing to nobody, though.”

   “U.S. Government says different,” Norris said.  “This Geitlin made off with three thousand dollars worth of horseflesh in past two months.”

“Well now, Mr. ahh…”

   “Norris.”

   “Norris, yeah.  See, what the U.S. Gubmint says ain’t worth beans here.”
“That may be true deputy, but you’d best be advised things is liable to get real warm in a minute,” Norris said, feeling already that this conversation had outlasted its usefulness.  The law knew he was here.  The law knew he’d be going after Geitlin.  He’d told them what they needed to know.  They could help or they could sit back and watch.  The way things were going they were planning to observe and that was just fine by him. 


Half an hour later and already sick and tired of searching every building, Norris was forced to change his hunting strategy.  He temporarily gave up his pursuit of the elusive thief and went to the nearest bar instead.  A shotglass filled with something resembling kerosene appeared on the scarred wooden surface.  He flicked at the glass.

“What’s this?”

“Our finest, son,” the barkeep said, “you look like you been dragged feet-first through hell, so we’ll make that first one on the house.  Drink up.”

Norris raised the glass, took a final look at whatever it was floating inside, and finished it on the first try.  Whatever it was, it burned. 

“Ain’t too many come in at this hour,” the barkeep said when he’d emptied the shotglass. 

“If it ain’t prying, why’d you come here?”

“Otto Geitlin,” Norris said flatly.

“Bounty hunter?”

“That’s right.”

“Well,” the bartender paused to take up a dirty glass and rag, “I warned the boy.  Told him the Army’d come after him one day.  I guess his number just come up.”

“You might say that.  I’d kinda hoped to get him still kickin’ though.”

“Well, if’n you figure your luck’s good tonight, he was playing a hand in the back not too long ago.  Ain’t heard nothing since so could be he went over to hotel across the street.”   

The bounty hunter nodded slowly.  If Geitlin had gone to the hotel, odds were he’d be sleeping off his time at the card table.  That made capturing him infinitely easier.  He himself had no over-riding desire to kill the man.  The Federals might, but Norris had no personal stake in this.  But if worst came to worst, there was no question of how it all would end. 

   He tossed a couple of coins onto the bar to pay for the free drink and walked across the street, stopping long enough to take the shotgun from his saddle boot.    He broke the gun and took out the chambered shells.  Both were unfired and in good condition.  Both went back in and he pushed the coach gun closed.  The crisp metal snap effectively sealed the fate of Otto Geitlin.  No turning back now.

Norris let himself into the hotel.  “Geitlin,” he told the clerk, throwing the reward poster on the counter.  The desk clerk, taken off balance by the appearance of an armed bounty hunter at two in the morning, found a key and dropped it on the counter with a shaking hand.

“R-r-room twenty-t-three,” he stammered.  Norris took the key and went upstairs.  By now, the situation had picked up too much momentum to be reversed.  The snowballing had started with him checking ammo in the street.  It hadn’t been looking good for Geitlin then.  Now, with a bounty hunter on the stairs with a gun and a room key the thief’s fate was unavoidable.  He’d be at the gates soon, either at the hands of Norris or the Army. 

He turned the skeletal key in the lock, hearing the mechanism turn and halfway wondering if the sounds were enough to wake the man on the other side.  He opened the door a crack and peered inside.  An unmoving shape lay on the bed.  Nope.  Still sound asleep.  This shouldn’t be too difficult.  Norris leaned over the sleeping form.

“Geitlin!”

The shape rolled over, saw him, and started to sit up.  Without light, Norris couldn’t be sure if this was the right one or not. 

“Otto Geitlin, you got a five hundred-dollar bounty on you.  ‘Less you wanna die I’d recommend you”—

“Otto?” a woman’s voice asked.  “Otto, is that you?”

Uh-oh.

“Otto?” she reached up to touch his face and, upon discovering that this intruder wasn’t Otto Geitlin, let off a piercing scream. 
   
Things happened fast after that.  Primarily, the real Otto Geitlin—who’d wandered downstairs a little bit earlier in search of a late-night drink and a friendly game of cards—came tearing down the sidewalk, burst into the hotel lobby, and thundered up the stairs.  As he ran, he reached under his jacket for his British-made Webley.  Tragically for him, he happened to get the revolver clear in time to reach the hotel room. 

Geitlin—who could never have been considered anything even close to a fighter—was a thief first and a gunman as a last resort.  His trade called for a fair bit of stealth with very little emphasis on handling guns.  Hence, when it came time he needed to know how he was flat out of luck.  The room was the worst possible environment and he made the amateur’s mistake of barreling straight into the middle of an unfamiliar situation.  With the lamps out out, his eyes failing to adjust, and the nerve-rending screams going on, he made his second big mistake: he started shooting. 

His first three shots went wide, straddling the bounty hunter and passing through the far wall.  Norris hadn’t wanted for things to turn out this way, but that was the breaks.  He wasn’t here for personal reasons maybe, but he wasn’t leaving empty-handed.  He brought the coach gun up and hauled back on both triggers.  For the shorter part of a second the discharge blocked all other noise while the unfolding scene was frozen in the muzzle flash. 

The force of the double impact hit Geitlin hard.  So hard, in fact, that he was thrown out of the doorway and against the other side of the hall.  Norris figured the thief was dead before he landed.  He broke the gun and tossed the empties, then dropped in two more while he moved to take a closer look at his source of funding for the next couple of months.

Otto Geitlin was—or rather, had been—a smallish, mousy-looking sort, somehow made to appear smaller by the onset of his sudden and violent demise.  By his guess, Norris put him a little over five feet and maybe a hundred-twenty pounds soaking wet.  That fit the description on the poster, though Geitlin had grown a mustache since he’d become a wanted man.  Norris reached down and grabbed the collar of the thief’s jacket to drag him outside. 

Four  hundred, he thought.  That ought to last a while, at least until he got the thousand from the Denton Logging Co.  Well past that point, really.  He hadn’t had that much cash on him in quite a while because most of his earnings went into a bank account back in Galveston.  That way he’d have a healthy stockpile left when he eventually quit and retired into a respectable life someplace where nobody knew him. 

   Somehow he knew better.  Quitting was a novel idea, albeit one that would never happen.  In all his years he had met old men and he had met bounty hunters.  Never once had he met an old bounty hunter.  That wasn’t to say he hadn’t toyed with the idea, though it never got far.  There was always one last fee to collect, one last rustler or thief.  He had finally realized—too late—that he was waiting on a break that would never come.  But that was the luck.     

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