I looked to where the voice was coming from. “Oh, no…”
Caroline, naturally, heard her name being called. She looked as well. And, at the same time as Frank, she muttered, “Oh, no…”
What Caroline and I both saw, of course, was Billy Williams headed our way. And he wasn’t looking at her—he was staring daggers at me. He came and stood about five feet from me and his breath was heaving, his face a mask of rage, and I would have sworn later that I saw smoke coming out of his ears.
“What did I tell you, mister, about talkin’ to Caroline?”
“I don’t know, Billy, that was several days ago and I can’t remember back that far.”
My flippancy didn’t impress him. “I’m going to pound you into the dirt, tinhorn. You’ll git the message then.” He started to move towards me when Caroline stepped between us and grabbed his arms.
“Billy, no! Don’t do this.”
He glanced at her for a moment, then back at me. “Caroline, I warned this feller. Told him to stay away from you. Now he, and ever other man in this town is gonna find out what happens when they mess with Billy Williams’ woman…”
Caroline was in angst. He’ll kill Frank, I know he will. “Billy, it was totally harmless, can’t you see that? You can’t control everybody I talk to all the time. I mean nothing to him and he means nothing to me.” Is that the truth?…”Let it go, Billy, please, for my sake.” Billy didn’t seem to be hearing a word she was saying. A crowd was gathering. Caroline became desperate. “Billy, I’ll marry you. Next week. Just don’t do this. Please?” Anything to keep him from hurting Frank…
That seemed to get through. Billy looked down at her. “You…you will? Next week?”
Caroline started to say something, realizing now the position she had put herself in. But then, she heard her name being called again, this time more softly, yet firmly.
“Caroline.” It was Frank.
She turned and looked at him. He just shook his head, as if to tell her that it wasn’t her affair.
“But, Frank, he’ll…Billy doesn’t know his own strength sometimes. He…he’ll hurt you…he may even kill—“ But then, she looked into Frank Pierce’s eyes…and shuddered. More dangerous than she could imagine in her most vivid dreams. Not savage. Not wild. Just…dangerous. No, Billy won’t kill him…not this man…
I gently took Caroline by the arms and led her out of the way behind me. Then I looked at Billy. “All right, Williams, if this is what you want, let’s get it over with.”
He was grinning maliciously. “Yeah, this is what I want. I haven’t liked you since I first saw you. We’ll show Caroline who the real man is around here.” He had been rolling up his sleeves while he had been talking.
There was quite a crowd now and they formed a big circle around the two of us. Before Billy and I started tangling though, somebody—the sheriff—broke through the line.
“All right, you two break it up. I’m not going to have this in my town.”
I didn’t even look at him. My eyes were on Billy. “Miller, get lost. This is none of your business so stay out of it.”
“Listen, buster, you saved my life. I’m trying to save yours.”
“You’d better be worried about Billy. He looks like Milt Ramsey to me.”
That stopped him and he intervened no more.
“Sheriff, do something!” That from Caroline.
Chet Miller just shook his head and backed up. “It’s out of my hands, Miss Barker. Let them settle it. It’s what they both want.” He was standing close to her and said softly, “And if you really love Billy Williams, maybe you’d better pray for him…”
Caroline glanced sharply at Sheriff Miller when she heard his final words. But she didn’t have time to digest them. Her eyes went back to the circle, and she groaned as she watched Billy and Frank circling each other, watching one another. And she looked into Frank’s eyes again…hard as flint…cold……. dangerous….Don’t hurt him too much, Frank…because she, like Chet Miller, knew what was going to happen now….
I wasn’t worried about Billy Williams. This guy was a brawler and that is exactly the kind of fighter Kiko taught me how to defeat. I did know that Billy was pretty quick for his size; I had noticed that the day I saw him make pulp out of the two men outside the saloon. The only thing I had to worry about was tripping and letting him hammer me with one of those big fists of his. He was strong and I couldn’t let him hit me. Or get his arms around me in a bear hug. But I had no intention of allowing him to do either.
He finally came at me swinging. I dodged, ducked, bobbed, and weaved, and all he connected with was the wind. One mighty, frustrated swing left him turned almost with his back to me. I put a boot in his rump and shoved. The crowd had to separate to get out of his way and he sprawled face first in the dust.
The mob had been whistling and hooting up till then; most of them were on my side, because nobody likes a bully. But Billy did have some friends there. Everybody apparently thought it wasn’t going to be much of a contest. When Billy went flying after I shoved him, the street suddenly became very quiet. This guy who had drilled five Ramsey brothers the day before with his guns apparently knew a little about hand fighting as well…
Caroline grimaced every time Billy swung, afraid he was going to connect and break Frank’s jaw. Or kill him. If one of those punches had landed solidly, it might have killed him. She had never seen Billy so angry and out of control. But, for all the world, it looked to her like Frank was toying with him. The smaller man wouldn’t even put his fists up. He just dodged and weaved and never came close to being struck. Caroline knew the signs—Billy was getting very frustrated and angrier by the moment. And then when Frank sent him flying with his boot-shove, Caroline knew that Billy was about to explode….
Billy slowly got up off the ground. Yes, it was obvious he was frustrated, and more than a little humiliated. I suspect nobody had ever done this to him before. He stood up and looked at me. “Why don’t you stand still and fight like a man, you coward? Afraid of gittin’ hit, ain’t ye. Mess up yore pretty face.”
“Your mouth doesn’t impress me any more than your fists do, Billy.” I made a motion with both hands. “Come on, you’re boring me.”
He roared and charged me like a bull. And he went flying over my shoulder and landed at least 15 feet away on his back with a resounding thump. Once again, the crowd had to scatter to keep from being hit. Billy was stunned a little. He lay there a moment, with his head up. He shook it. Then he slowly got up, turned, and stared at me. “I’m goin’ to kill you, mister…”
Caroline’s eyes were huge as she saw Billy go flying through the air and land on his back. This was amazing. She looked at Frank. He appeared almost bored—and certainly disgusted—with the whole thing. When she heard Billy say he was going to kill Frank, she knew then—if she’d ever had any doubt—that she would never marry Billy Williams….
Billy charged. He went flying again, landed 10 feet away, but bounced up immediately and came at me fiercely. I started to grab and toss him again, but he stopped just out of my reach, so I wasn’t able to throw him. However, the one lesson Kiko had drilled into me over and over and over again, month after month and year after year, was to watch out for the unexpected. And that’s what Billy did when he stopped—or at least he thought so. He wasn’t about to let me throw him again. So I did what he didn’t expect and put 200 pounds of weight behind a right fist that smashed Billy Williams’ nose and sent blood flying.
It staggered him, but that was all. He was a big man and he’d been hit before. But I followed up immediately and never let him recover. I sent left jab after left jab into his face, backing him up, and he never could get his feet set. Finally, I quit throwing punches and he thought I was tired, I suppose, and that it was his turn to pound me a bit. But when he took a step forward, he got my boot in his mid-section, and as hard as I could kick. The air in his lungs rushed out in a whoosh, and he doubled over holding his stomach.
The fight was over unless I just stood around and waited for Billy to be able to breathe again. A man who can’t breathe can’t fight, and that was the position he was in. I looked over at Caroline—she was still staring at me, wide-eyed. “I’m sorry, Caroline,” I said, and put a knee into Billy Williams’ forehead. That lifted him up just high enough for me to put a boot on the side of his head. His head snapped to the side and he went sprawling. He hit the ground, face down. He lay there for a few moments, still conscious, but heaving, trying to get up.
“I’m…I’m gonna…kill you…mister…kill you…” he said. And that set me off.
I pulled my knife from the sheath on my belt, and quickly knelt down beside him. I rolled him over, put the blade to his throat and said, “Then tell me one reason, you scum, why I shouldn’t slit your throat right now. I don’t particularly fancy watching my back for the rest of my life….”
Caroline winced when she saw Frank break Billy’s nose. Then punch after punch…he’s as fast as a snake…Then the kick to the stomach. Frank looked at her. “I’m sorry, Caroline.” She wasn’t sure what he meant until she saw the vicious knee to the forehead and boot to the side of the head. Billy hit the ground. Caroline heard what he said, of course, and then saw Frank pull the knife and kneel with the blade at Billy’s throat. And she heard what he said, too…
“Frank, no! Don’t kill him!” Don’t kill him…don’t be…like that…
Billy looked up at me and the fright was evident in his eyes. I suspect he saw nothing but death in the way I was looking at him. He didn’t hear Caroline shout, but he did hear the sheriff. “That’s enough, Pierce. He’s licked.”
I didn’t move immediately, but kept the knife at Billy’s throat. And I spoke to him. “Don’t you ever—ever—threaten me again. You hear me? Or I’ll pull your guts out from between your teeth.” I stood up then, and people gasped when I raised the knife and threw it as hard as I could. It landed in the ground, less than an inch from Billy’s ear. His eyes were squeezed shut; he thought I was really going to kill him. He heaved a sigh of relief when all he heard was the knife vibrating a tune next to his head.
I leaned over and picked up the knife. Sheriff Miller came over to me. “I’d have seen you hang if you had killed him, Pierce.”
“Would you have hanged him if he had killed me?”
Miller didn’t say anything.
I continued. “I had no intention of killing him, sheriff. But you better keep him away from me or next time I might. I don’t put up with being threatened by anybody.”
Miller was staring at me, hard. “Why don’t you just pack up and get on out of town now, Pierce—or whoever you are? You keep saying you’re going to. Now would be a good time.”
I sighed, weary. I hadn’t wanted any of this. I reached over and patted Miller on the shoulder. He was a good man, I had no quarrel with him. “Yeah, sheriff, I guess you’re right.” I started to walk away and saw Caroline staring at me. Her hypnotic eyes weren’t having much affect on me at the moment.
“Next week, huh. Be sure to wear your nice earrings,” I said to her and saw her grimace and turn her head. I walked off and the crowd, which was still there, parted like the Red Sea to let me through.
But there was one more thing. I saw the Myers brothers at the back of the crowd. I stared fire at them and walked towards them. “You want your $40 worth now?”
Two pairs of eyes got huge…and Harley and Hank Myers turned and ran…
Caroline was staring at him. Then his words—“Next week, huh”—had been a dagger through her heart. She could never marry Billy Williams and she knew it; and inside, she had always known it. But she had said she would—publicly. In front of Frank Pierce and a number of other people. She wasn’t sure yet how she’d extricate herself from that impulsive promise, but that could wait. She had to talk to Frank Pierce. Now.
I headed towards the hotel, intending to keep my promise to Sheriff Chet Miller. I was trying to figure out a way I could stay in the area until matters were settled with “Hannibal Landers.” Well, Barker offered me a job. I guess I could take it. I wouldn’t have to come into town. Then I shook my head. I can’t be out there with Caroline…well, she won’t be there long, I suppose. She’ll move in with…him…
I turned. It was Caroline. I just looked at her.
So cold…cold…he must really despise me…Caroline didn’t quite know what to say. She stumbled, “Thank you…for…not killing him.”
His face had an annoyed, angry expression on it. “Well, I wouldn’t have wanted to make you a widow before you even got married.”
Caroline dropped her head and closed her eyes. “Frank, please don’t. Please don’t be like that.”
His voice softened. “You did try to stop it. And apparently for my sake. I appreciate that.” She looked up at him. Their eyes met. What’s there?…
Caroline and I looked at each other. Our eyes met. What’s there? What do I WANT to be there? I didn’t know the answer to either question. But I couldn’t let myself go, not with the plans she announced to the world….
For a moment, Caroline thought…thought what? That maybe…there was something in his eyes? Something…positive? Affection? Love? No…no…But then, those eyes hardened again. And his voice was cruel. “Are you really going to marry that guy? Is that the best you can do?” And, with obvious disgust, he turned and walked away.
He didn’t hear her softly say, “No, Frank. No, to both questions…”