There were six of them in the Barker living room, and Caroline had to play hostess, a role she didn’t relish at all. Her father, Trace Newsome, the man she knew as Hannibal Landers, and three of Rocking AT’s cowboys—“my best guns,” Art Barker had told “Landers”—were drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes or cigars—Caroline hated both—and munching on some edibles she had made that morning. And she was baking some more because the first batch hadn’t lasted long.
She was back and forth into the living room, bringing more munchies and keeping the coffee warm. Every time she glanced at Landers, he was looking at her. And she shuddered. It wasn’t necessarily a look of lust; she had seen that plenty of times and knew it immediately. But there was a cockiness in his face, as if he were telling her that he could have her any time he wanted. We’ll see about that, buster…But the man did produce strange emotions within her. She didn’t hate him quite like she thought she would. But that’s didn’t mean she liked him, either. Get on with whatever you’re going to do and get out of here…
Well, what the gunman was going to do was the subject of the powwow in the living room. Caroline could tell that Trace Newsome was uneasy about it all; he was a cowboy, not a gunfighter, but he’d obey orders. Barker had filled Landers in on the local circumstance.
“You know Benny Freitus?” Art asked him.
“Landers” nodded. “Heard of ‘im. Never met ‘im. He’d be dead if I had. He’s good, but he’s far from the best.” He smiled, the smile of a ruthless predator about to descend upon his helpless prey. “I’m the best.”
“Well, you’d better be, for what I’m paying you. Have you had any experience with this sort of thing before? A range war, I mean.”
“Sure. And usually, it’s a David and Goliath thing. And by that I simply mean, knock out the big guy and you’ve destroyed the enemy’s morale. I’ll kill Freitus and then the mop-up will be easy.”
Art Barker wasn’t so sure it would be like that but he wasn’t going to argue the point. “Well, we’ll let it be known that you’re in town now, so you and Freitus should be able to meet up as soon as possible.”
“What’s the ultimate goal, here, Barker?” Landers said. “Are you trying to take over the whole valley?”
Caroline happened to walk into the room at that moment with a plate of steaming donuts. Barker glanced at her, saw her looking at him sharply, and responded, “No, uh, Ridenour is, though, and I’m just…trying to protect my land.” Another glance at his daughter. She had him intimidated, Caroline knew it, and that was the first time she could ever recall that happening.
Paul McKenzie, one of the cowboys in the room, asked, “Mr. Barker, you think Ridenour’ll just give up once his gunman is dead? And if we plug Ridenour, we can prolly take over the Bar GR and anythin’ else we want.”
Barker winced. Killing Ridenour wasn’t exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to…well, he didn’t really know what he wanted. He was mad—furious—at Giles Ridenour, and he wanted to get at him somehow. But kill him? That didn’t sit well with Art Barker. He wasn’t a murderer. And he had trouble not agreeing with his daughter’s assessment of “Hannibal Landers.” It was obvious the man had absolutely no conscience, that he’d just as soon kill a human being as squash a bug. And Barker didn’t like the fact that the gunman kept looking at Caroline. If he touches her, I’ll kill him. Indeed, that was something Art Barker could do, and fairly easily.
“No,” he replied to McKenzie. “I don’t want Ridenour killed if it can be helped. I just want him…humbled…a bit and maybe we can all be at peace.”
Caroline was still standing there and she saw an expression of puzzlement come onto the faces of Trace Newsome and the three cowboys. This wasn’t exactly the story line they’d gotten from Barker before and they were confused. Barker knew it. “Listen,” he said. “I don’t want this valley flowing with blood. We could start an all-out war here and a lot of innocent people could get killed. Like my daughter. Let’s let Landers here take care of Freitus and then we’ll see where we stand. I don’t want to start anything that doesn’t need starting.”
Trace looked up at Caroline with a strange expression on his face. He shook his head, as if to say, “I’m confused.” Caroline liked the way her father was talking, but was afraid that it was all just for her sake. But she kept out of it.
“Would anyone like some more coffee?” she asked, and it broke some tension in the room.
“Yes, pretty lady, I’d like to have another cup,” Landers said. Barker stared hard at the gunman, but the latter didn’t seem to notice. And he wasn’t shy. “Do you like to ride?” he asked her. “Maybe you could show me the ranch later on.”
Caroline’s heart leapt into her throat, but her father jumped in. “Landers, you’re here to do a job. Go do it and get out of the valley. My daughter is off limits. Totally off limits. You got that?”
“Landers” smiled, but again, it came nowhere near his eyes. “Oh, I don’t mean any harm, Barker. You have a very lovely daughter. What man wouldn’t want to be in her company for awhile?”
“Well, you stay away from her. I don’t want you distracted any.”
The outlaw looked up at Caroline as he brought the coffee cup to his lips. “Oh, I won’t be. Don’t worry.” Caroline met his eyes for a second, shivered, and left the room. Oh, he’s so repulsive…yet so…hypnotic…
She didn’t hear the rest of the conversation, the sum total of which was a little more belligerent on her father’s part. “You kill Freitus,” he told Landers, “then if Ridenour gives us any more trouble…we’ll do what we have to do…”
I didn’t do much the next few days except eat, rest, and ride Diablo. It takes about nine or ten good ridings to really break a horse in, and he still had some fight in him. But he was slowly calming down. I kept him at the local livery stable and the hostler said, when I first brought him in, “Ain’t that Barker’s horse, Diablo? Fact, I know it is. What’re you doin’ with him?”
"I won him in a bet,” I told him. “Barker told me I could have him if I broke him.”
“Yeah, come to think of it, I heard about that. And you really broke him? Man, I didn’t think anybody could break that horse.”
“Even a horse knows what the business end of a double-barrel shotgun looks like when its pointed between its eyes,” and he laughed.
I didn’t see Caroline and I didn’t see Billy Williams. Or “Hannibal Landers,” either for that matter, at least not for a few days. I spent nearly all of it out of town, riding Diablo and looking over the country. It was beautiful and was an outstanding ranching area. I sighed. I would have loved to have part of it, but that didn’t appear possible at the moment. I figured that, as soon as this matter with “Hannibal Landers” was settled, I’d ride on.
Couldn’t quite get Caroline Barker out of my mind, but I figured that she was all tied up with Billy Williams. I had no idea what she saw in that brute, but love is blind, I reckon. It wouldn’t do me any good to get tangled up with a woman anyway, especially a woman who thought nothing better of Hannibal Landers than he was a murderer.
After riding Diablo for the better part of three days, I decided to give him a rest and stay in town. I was eating breakfast the next morning at Wiggly’s when the sheriff came in. He noticed me and walked over.
“Mind if I sit down?” he asked.
“Not a bit,” I replied, “if you don’t mind me continuing to eat while you do.”
He grunted. “Go right ahead. Far be it from me to interrupt a man’s meal.” So I kept right on eating while he ordered a cup of coffee.
He said, “Kinda surprised to see you still around. You plan on making a home here?” He was being nosey, but it was his job to know what was going on so I wasn’t offended.
“I do like it here, Sheriff Miller, but I doubt I’ll stay. I think I mentioned to you that I’d been riding awhile and wanted to give my horse a blow. Not sure how much longer I’ll stay, but probably not long.”
“I hear you’ve got another horse now.”
“Yeah. Won him off Art Barker.”
He nodded. I reckon everybody knew about it now. “You haven’t run into the Myers boys again, have you?” he asked.
I gave him a rueful grin. “You’d probably have heard about it if I had. But I’ve been riding the last three days, breaking in Diablo, so I haven’t done much socializing.”
An old fellow came busting into the restaurant right then, all hot to trot. He was looking for Miller. “Sheriff, the Ramsey boys is headin’ to town, ‘n from what I hear, they ain’t lookin’ very friendly.” The man bearing the news was obviously scared out of his wits.
The sheriff sighed, closed his eyes, and rubbed them. “Well, it was bound to happen.”
“What’re ye gonna do, sheriff? You cain’t face all of ‘em.”
"I don’t have much choice, Blitz. It’s my job.”
“We can tell ‘em you had to go out o’ town…”
“And they’d just shoot up the place and come back before long. And I can’t run, you know that.” He looked at Blitz. “Is there anybody in town…?” He let it hang.
Blitz was not only scared but he was in agony now. “Sheriff…I mean…we all like ye, but…them’s the Ramseys, ‘n…well, most of us got families…and want to live…” his voice trailed off.
Another sigh from Miller. He stood up. “I know, Blitz. And I understand. It’s what you people pay me for. Though probably not for much longer.” He nodded at me and left the restaurant.
Blitz looked at me as if wanting some sympathy and understanding. “Them’s the Ramseys that’s comin’…”
“You want to fill me in?” I asked him.
He had an agonized expression on his face. “Seven of ‘em. Sheriff Miller kilt one last year, tryin’ to arrest him and bring ‘im in. The others has vowed ever since they’d git revenge—kill the sheriff for killing their brother.” He shook his head and I thought I saw tears in his eyes. “Them boys is nuthin’ but poison, mister. I mean, dead shots, lightening draws, eyes in the back of their heads. Ever’body in this town is scared to death of ‘em.”
“So you people are going to let them ride in and kill your sheriff. Is that it?”
He tried to say something, but nothing came out.
I grunted. “And they called me a coward,” I muttered. I sat there, frustrated. I knew what I had to do, but I didn’t want to do it. I stood up, tossed some coins on the table, and walked towards the front door. On my way past him, I patted Blitz on the shoulder and said, “Go find you a hole to crawl into until it’s all over,” and then I left the building.
I stood outside the door for a minute and saw people running towards me from my left. “They’re coming,” I heard somebody shout. People started ducking into shops, windows started closing, shutters were pulled down. I saw Sheriff Miller standing in the street, looking around, watching all of this. He had a hard expression on his face, but inside the man had to be in turmoil. He was fixing to stand up to six killers, and nobody was going to help him. So…he was fixing to die, and he knew it.
I had been chomping on a toothpick, and with a little disgust, I threw it to the ground. I walked across the street towards the hotel, and when I got halfway across, I heard some more commotion and turned my head. Here came several men—I counted five—on horseback. In no way did they resemble the salt of the earth or the light of the world. About 50 yards down the street, they all pulled over, tied their horses down, and headed in my direction—actually, in the sheriff’s direction, I just happened to be there, too. Except by this time, I was up the step and almost in the hotel. I saw Miller slowly move out to the middle of the street, and heard one of the Ramseys shout, “Miller, you’re dead!” I reckon the sheriff already knew that.
I nodded at the desk clerk and walked up the stairs to my room. I did what I hoped I would never have to do again—but, frankly, wasn’t surprised that I had to do it. I opened my saddlebags, pulled out the two-holster gun belt, and strapped it on. Then, the two pistols. I made sure they were both loaded, holstered them, and with a sigh, headed out of the room, down the steps, and out of the hotel. The clerk stared at me but I paid him no mind. He wasn’t carrying a gun…
There was nobody in sight except the six men in the middle of the street. About 50 feet separated them—five on one side, the sheriff on the other. This was going to be a slaughter. My eyes narrowed; where’s the sixth Ramsey? Blitz had said there had been seven; could he have been mistaken? I glanced around. I did see a few faces peeking out from behind shutters and looking through windows. But nobody else was on the street.
The wind had picked up and was blowing some dust around. I heard a moan from the hotel eaves. A little dirt devil whipped up behind the sheriff, then took off down the street. As if it were fleeing the Ramsey boys, too.
One of the Ramseys—the big fellow in the middle—was smirking and mocking the sheriff. The cat playing with the mouse…”Where’s all the good folks o’ Pine Valley to he’p ye, sheriff? Don’t know why you bother to protect such as this. Folks who got no more guts than they do…”
“Everybody needs the law, Ramsey, and some day it will catch up with you.” I had to hand it to Miller. He was as brave a man as I’d seen in a long time.
“Well, it ain’t gonna be today,” Ramsey said, and laughed. His brothers laughed with him. Then the man’s face turned ugly. “You kilt my little brother, Miller. You’re gonna die for that, you know that, don’t you.”
“I was doing my job, Milt. If you had been me, you would have done the same thing.”
“Yeah, mebbe so. And if you was me, you’d be doin’ what I’m gonna do right now, which is pay you back. You gotta die. We can’t have folks thinkin’ they can kill a Ramsey and get away with it. That wouldn’t look good now, would it.”
Miller said nothing. He was wearing only one gun, and he was flexing his hand over the grip in preparation for drawing. I had no idea what he had in mind, but unless he was Hannibal Landers, he didn’t have a chance.
And he wasn’t Hannibal Landers. I am.
“You need some help, sheriff?” I said, and walked down the step into the street.
Miller looked at me and his face became grave. “What are you doing here, Pierce? This isn’t your fight.”
"Yeah, well, I need the target practice so I reckon I’ll make it my fight,” I said, as I stopped about five feet from him and faced the Ramseys. “I always stomp snakes when I see them.” Meaning the Ramseys, of course.
“Get out of here, Pierce,” the sheriff ordered. “All you’re going to do is get yourself killed. Why?”
I smiled. “Oh, I don’t have anything better to do today…”
The Ramseys were staring at me. “Who are you?”
“I’m death warmed over, feller. The Grim Reaper. The last man you’re ever going to see on the face of this earth.”
Milt Ramsey narrowed his eyes as he looked at me. I saw some movement in my peripheral vision, but didn't look away from the five men in front of me. “You got a big mouth, buddy," Milt Ramsey said to me. "Why are you wantin' to die so bad?"
"Oh, I don't intend to die, Milt, and I would have stayed out of it, except five to one doesn't seem very fair to me." I gave him a smile, but I don't think it reached my eyes. "Five to two seems a lot more equal, especially when I'm part of the two."
"And just who are you?" He'd already asked me that once.
"My name is Beelzebub and I guard the gates of hell where I'm fixing to send you and your brothers." And I don't really consider myself stupid. The odds were five to two and I didn't feel like giving those guys a sporting chance. So I pulled a gun and started firing.
It was over in less than a second. Give or take a second or two. I'm pretty fast, folks, or at least my Pa would have said so, and I always keep my guns well oiled. Milt never got his gun out because I shot him first. A couple of the Ramseys did get a shot away, but nothing close. The others died with their hands wrapped around their gun butts.
And then I pointed the gun--I still had one bullet left--at the roof of the building across the street and said, “If you even think about it, mister, you’ll join your brothers in hell.”
The sixth Ramsey brother--and it was his movement I had seen in my peripheral vision--had been on that roof with a rifle. His mouth was open, staring at what he had just seen. Sheriff Chet Miller was looking at me like he had seen a ghost. Except he was the one who was as white as a sheet. His gun wasn’t even out of its holster. He tried to speak, but all that came out was a croaking whisper. “Who are you?” There was that question again.
I was still pointing the gun at the Ramsey on the roof. I hadn't drawn my other gun so I crooked my free finger at the guy in the classic “come here” movement. He gulped a couple of times, and started climbing down. Numb and dumb.
Miller found his voice—all of it. “I guess…I’d better go make sure they’re all dead.”
“They’re dead, sheriff, you can count on that. You take care of the living.” I motioned to the sixth Ramsey. “Take him to jail.”
Miller was in a daze, but he nodded. “Yeah, I’ll do that.” Then, after staring at me for a few more seconds, he seemed to come back to himself, pulled his pistol and pointed it at the last living Ramsey brother. “All right, Cain, off to jail. You’ve got a rope comin’ afore long.”
I holstered my gun, turned, and walked back towards the hotel. People were starting to come out of the buildings now, milling about. Gaping at me. Murmuring. I didn’t pay any attention. The whole thing sickened me.
If I had had any hope, any hope at all, of staying in Pine Valley, I figured that hope was now 100% gone.
I went up to my room, took off my gun belt, and lay on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Thinking…nothing. Just waiting. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, there was a knock on the door.
“Come on in, sheriff, it’s open.”
I heard the door open and Miller walked in. He stood over the bed and looked down at me. “I’ll ask you again. Who are you?”
I grunted. “Maybe a thank you would be in order?”
“Yeah. Thanks. I mean it. I’d be dead for sure. Now answer my question. Who are you?”
“Name’s Frank Pierce.”
“No, it isn’t. I’ve never heard of you.”
I raised my eyebrows. “You’ve heard of every man who can shoot a gun?”
“I’d know a man who could shoot like that. Nobody can move that fast. Nobody.”
I’d heard that before, from my Pa and a few others. “Well, I got lucky. Everybody has a good day.”
His eyes narrowed at me. “Ok, mister. I won’t ask who you are. You can be Frank Pierce or the prophet Jeremiah for all I care. You saved my life and I’m grateful. But I’m not really sure I want you in my town. You’re liable to rustle up a whole bunch of hotheads who’d like to prove how nifty they are by outdrawing you. Although I doubt a one of them would even clear leather.” He gave me a hard look. “None of those Ramsey got their gun out of their holster. Not one. And they were fast, mister. But they couldn’t even get their guns out.” That wasn't altogether true, two of them had gotten a shot away, like I mentioned. But I didn't feel up to arguing the finer points of the shootout with him.
So I just said, “I know. Didn’t intend for them to. A fellow could get hurt if the other guy shoots back.”
Miller gave me a disgusted look. “A wise guy to boot. I can’t run you out of town, of course, but as thankful as I am to you, I’d be thankful to see your back, too.”
I met his eyes. “I don’t think I’ll be here much longer, sheriff.”
Our gazes locked for a few seconds, then he nodded, turned, and left.
I lay on the bed, melancholy. Thoughts of Pa and Ma…and Arn Cooper…and Caroline Barker…came to my mind.
And a tear rolled down my cheek….
The gun battle was the talk of the town, of course, but nobody wanted to talk to me about it. Which suited me perfectly. Oh, I got a few, “good job, stranger,” and “thanks for what you did,” and that sort of stuff, but other than that, I felt like I had the plague. Nobody would touch me or come very close to me for very long. And that suited me perfectly, too.
But I didn’t put on my gun again, either.
The next day I saw Caroline in town. She saw me at the same time, and hesitated. I hesitated, too, but walked over to her. She actually smiled, although a little warily.
“If you say ‘nice earrings’ again,” she said, “I’m going to scream ‘Rape!’”
I laughed. “Well, then, can I say, ‘pretty dress’?” She was wearing the red one again, and it was pretty.
“Yes, that’s acceptable. And thank you.” Her eyes were still a little suspicious, and she looked at me closely. “You’re the talk of town, I guess you know that.”
“Oh, you heard, huh.”
“Yes. You killed ten men with one shot is the way it’s going around now.”
I laughed again. “I use big bullets.”
She wasn’t amused. She was too busy searching my eyes for…something. “Who are you, Frank? You act like a coward…then… Diablo…the Ramseys…who are you?”
I was getting tired of that question. I sort of wished The Fraud would show up about now so I could challenge him and get it over with. Except I wasn’t wearing a gun.
“My name is Frank Pierce, Caroline,” I said, and there was some acid in my voice. I muttered under my breath, “At least for the moment…”
And then…a volcano erupted….
Caroline heard about the shooting almost as soon as she got to town. She went into the grocery store and was immediately accosted by Linda Fuller, one of her best friends.
“Oh, Caroline, you should have been here yesterday. Wow, did you miss it!”
“The Ramsey brothers came to town looking for Sheriff Miller. They were all standing in the street, ready to shoot it out. Then that stranger—Pierce—he came out of the hotel wearing two guns. He stood beside the sheriff and he shot every one of the Ramsey brothers. Every one of them! Well, except Cain, who was on the roof across the street. It was amazing! Pierce got all five of them. The sheriff never even had to draw his gun.”
Caroline was stunned when she heard this. “Frank?” But then, in her mind, she saw his eyes…deep blue. Intelligent. Intense. Missed nothing. Penetrating…. dangerous…and she wasn’t stunned any more.
“Well, that must have been something. I’m glad the Ramsey are…aren’t around any more.”
“Yes, that’s a godsend.” Linda looked at Caroline quizzically. “You know Frank Pierce, don’t you? He’s the one who broke Diablo.”
“Yes, he was, and I’ve met him, but I don’t know him well. He seems…nice, but…hard? I don’t know. He’s strange.” What DO I think about him? She hadn’t really thought much about him at all the past few days, though he hadn’t completely disappeared from her mind, either. Billy had come out one day and asked her to marry him. Caroline wasn’t ready for that at all, but she had to handle it very delicately so she told him it was a big step and she’d have to think about it.
“Well, don’t think too long, honey,” Billy had said, with a charming smile. And he did have one. “I cain’t stand to be away from you too much longer.”
That had created some serious angst in Caroline and was one reason she hadn’t thought much about Frank Pierce. Another reason was “Hannibal Landers.” She did everything she could to avoid him, or at least not ever be alone with him, but one afternoon, as she was baking a pie for supper, she was by herself in the house. And Landers came in.
“Smells good,” he said, and she jumped, not having heard him come in. He moves like a ghost…
“Oh. You startled me,” she said.
“Sorry. I was just complimenting your cooking. You do it very well.”
She looked at him. He was smiling, a small smile, but again, nowhere near his eyes. “Thank you,” she responded. “My mom…taught me…then she died. So I’ve had to pretty well make do since then.”
“Your father is very lucky to have you around. I hope he appreciates you like he should.”
For a murderer, he can sure turn on the charm. “Well, he’s been a good father, and I’ve tried to be a good daughter.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say. Her pulse had speeded up a bit. Fright? Something else? She wasn’t sure. But this man’s presence….
But he came no closer. “I’d still like for us to go riding some time,” he said.
His demeanor was catching Caroline totally off guard. If she hadn’t known who—what—he was, she would have been very tempted and would likely have said yes. But she did know who—and what—he was, and charming or not, those feelings of revulsion were still very strong.
“I don’t think…my father would approve of that.”
“Aren’t you old enough to make your own decisions?”
“Yes. But I do have to live here with him. I’m sorry, Mr. Landers, but I just don’t think it would be a good idea.”
He looked at her for several seconds. He seemed to be hypnotized by her eyes. She was almost hypnotized by his.
His next words were, to Caroline, out of character as well. They seemed almost…childish. “You don’t like me very much, do you.”
“I don’t like what you are.”
He nodded. After a few seconds, he replied, “Every man can change. Given the right incentive.”
Caroline’s blood rushed through her veins, though it felt like her heart skipped a beat. “Do you really think so?” she asked, trying to remain calm.
“Yes. I think so.”
“And after you kill Benny Freitus, you think the right…incentive…will undo what you did?”
His hard face turned harder. He looked Caroline up and down. “No. It won’t undo it. But usually, at least once in his life, a man would like a second chance.”
Caroline wasn’t buying this any more. As subtle as he was trying to be, he was coming on a little too strong. “Mr. Landers, I’ll be honest with you. You are a handsome man, and you say some nice things. But, to me, you’re still a murderer and I don’t trust you. And I doubt that will ever change. Now please leave so I can get on with supper.”
He looked at her for a few more moments and she was very uneasy. But he just nodded. “Thank you for talking to me.” He put his hat back on, and turned and walked away.
Caroline breathed for what seemed like the first time since he had entered the room. He won’t change. He’ll always be a murderer. It’s in his blood…
Well, between Billy’s proposal and Landers’ charm, Caroline hadn’t had much time to think about Frank Pierce. Until her friend Linda mentioned the shootout. She tried to shake it off. Billy…Hannibal…Frank…I don’t need this right now…Like most pretty women, Caroline had had “men” problems before and she had been able to deal with them. But with the valley possibly about to explode into open warfare, she could do without the distraction at the moment. Well, actually, Frank hasn’t done anything to show any interest. It’s just Billy and Landers. Then why am I thinking about Frank?…
But then, they met on the street, as recounted a few pages earlier. She thought she saw a little softening in him when he laughed a couple of times. But then she made the mistake of asking “Who are you, Frank?” and she saw him turn hard again and she knew that any ice that had melted had just frozen up again. And Caroline still wasn’t sure she wanted the ice to melt. He killed five men…so easily…is he a murderer, too? An outlaw on the run? Then why did he help the sheriff?….he’s going to be leaving soon anyway…
And then the volcano erupted…