It wasn’t quite noon yet, but I got my gear together from the hotel and walked over to the livery stable. I had two horses now. Well, I could switch off riding them and get twice as far from the place. I had a bitter taste in my mouth. I had really liked what I had seen in Pine Valley when I first arrived there, and had seriously considered staying. But the whole thing had blown up in my face. I didn’t even care about “Hannibal Landers” now. Let him go around using my name and killing whoever he wanted to. I’d go somewhere else and use another name. George Washington. Nobody had ever heard that one before.
I was going to ride Raven out of town and have Diablo trail us. As I was saddling the big black, I heard somebody call my name. I glanced up and saw Trace Newsome.
“You leaving town?” he asked me.
“Yeah. Nothing more for me here.”
“Well, wish you’d stay and take a job with Mr. Barker. I got a feeling you’d make a good hand.”
“Or a dead one, given what I hear is happening in this valley.” I was tightening the cinch as I was talking to him. Then I turned and looked at him. “Can’t do it, Trace.” I shook my head. “I just can’t do it.” And I knew why.
Caroline Barker. Or Caroline Williams, as she will be this time next week.
“Well, that’s your choice,” I heard Newsome say. “Just in case you’re interested, Hannibal Landers and Benny Freitus are going to meet tomorrow at high noon at Black Rock Mesa.”
I looked at him sharply, but then said, “Why would I be interested in that?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know, but something tells me that you would.”
Yeah. I was very interested in that, but I didn’t want to show it. “What’s the deal? They going to have a winner-take-all shoot out? If Freitus wins, Ridenour gets the valley? If Landers, then Barker gets it?”
Newsome shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve been talking to Harry Cumber, though—he’s Ridenour’s foreman and a good friend of mine—and he’s telling me that he and his boys don’t want this any more than we do.” He exhaled audibly through his nose. “Frank, this is just a dispute, albeit a heated one, between Barker and Ridenour. None of the rest of us want a war.”
“Then put Barker and Ridenour in a ring and let them fight it out.”
He grunted. “We’d like to do that.”
I looked at him. “Trace, are you going to fight if it comes to it?”
He looked away, and I could see the doubt in his face. He shook his head. “I don’t know. I really don’t know.” Then he turned back to me. “But I’d really like for you to be at Black Rock tomorrow. I don’t know what you can do, but I’d appreciate it if you’d show.”
Well, why not? It’s not like I had an appointment to be any place any time soon. I nodded. “Tell me where it is and I’ll be there.”
He gave me directions. “Thanks. For some reason, I don’t know what it is, but I’ll feel better knowing you are there.”
I just waved him good-bye.
With a sigh, I started removing the saddle from Raven’s back. If I was going to stay in the area one more day, I was going to sleep in a nice bed, whether Miller liked it or not.
The sun was shining brightly under a clear, blue sky the next day. Black Rock Mesa wasn’t hard to find. It was about 10 miles northwest of town. It wasn’t really a mesa, at least not the kind I was used to in New Mexico. This thing was more of a bump in the ground out in the middle of a grassy plain, though there were some boulders scattered haphazardly around that for all the world looked like God had just dropped them out of heaven and let them lie where they fell. The mountains weren’t far away, of course, but this was still part of Pine Valley. I didn’t see a black rock anywhere.
I arrived about a quarter of noon, and there were already a number of people there. I recognized Art Barker and his men; there were about 20 of them—and “Hannibal Landers” was with them, of course. Across the mesa, maybe 100 yards away was another group of men—Ridenour and his boys, I suspected. And there appeared to be about 20 men there, too. I didn’t know Benny Freitus by sight, but I figured he was somewhere around.
And yes, Caroline was there as well. She and I looked at each other for a moment, but neither of us made any acknowledgment of the other. I glanced around for Billy Williams, but I didn’t see him.
Caroline was taken aback somewhat when she saw Frank Pierce ride up. I didn’t know he was going to be here. I thought he was leaving town. She thought about going over and asking him about it, but when their eyes met, he didn’t give her any encouragement and he certainly made no move in her direction. As she usually did when she saw him, she started examining her feelings and trying to decide what they were. And coming to no fixed conclusions. I don’t know what I think about him. He’s…different…warm, but…aloof. She tried to put him out of her mind for she had great angst at what might happen on Black Rock Mesa in just a little while…
I didn’t go over and join the Barker group, but stayed a good distance away, leaning against a boulder. I saw Art Barker talking to The Fraud; Barker saw me and nodded briefly, but that was all. Trace Newsome spotted me and came over.
“Glad you came,” he said.
“What’s happening?” I asked him.
Trace sighed and shook his head, looking in the direction of Ridenour and his men. “Ridenour keeps staring at us, but it’s kinda hard to read his face from this far. That fellow standing next to him with the red bandana around his neck is Benny Freitus. He’s no pussycat, but Landers is confident he can take him.” Newsome shifted his gaze back to me. “They are going to have at it and then…” He shook his head again.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Be ready for anything.”
“Trace, I’m not shooting at anybody who doesn’t shoot at me first. If you men want to kill each other, that’s your business. Don’t expect any help from me. I’m sorry, but this is not my war, and I’m not rightly sure what I’m even doing here.”
He nodded. “I understand. I’m not asking you to get involved.” He paused a moment, scrutinizing me closely. “But what are you going to do if the shooting starts?”
I looked away, squinting in the sun, and sighed. “I may just kill all of you and ride away.”
He chuckled slightly. “Well, we’d probably deserve it.”
I glanced at the Bar GR group, and nodded in their direction. “Looks like the party is fixing to start.”
Ridenour and his men were walking towards the Rocking AT bunch. Ridenour’s men had spread out in a line and were following their boss and their gunman. Barker’s men were slowly doing likewise, a line of 20 or so men behind Art Barker and The Fraud.
"I reckon I better go join ‘em,” Trace said.
“Good luck,” I responded, wondering why all this had to happen.
I heard Art speak to Caroline. “You go over and stand next to Pierce, out of the line of fire.”
I glanced quickly at Caroline. She started to say something, hesitated, then came towards me. She was the only one who saw me pull my two-gun belt from my saddle bags and buckle it on. Then I slid my rifle from its sheath and made sure it was loaded.
“What are you doing?” she asked me as she came up.
“If anybody shoots in my direction, I intend to shoot back.” I looked at her. “You have any objection to that?”
She searched my eyes. I wished she’d quit doing that. “No,” she replied, then turned and watched Ridenour’s approaching men. “What are you doing here?” she asked me.
“Trace Newsome asked me to come. I have no idea why except maybe he wanted me to bury him when it was all over.”
“Frank, don’t say that.”
“Caroline, this could get very ugly, very quickly. If they start shooting, you get on the other side of this boulder behind us, and if you don’t do it quickly enough, I’ll throw you over it.” She looked at me. I gave her a wry grin. “Billy Williams would never forgive me if I let you get killed.”
She shifted her gaze back to the middle of the mesa and wrapped her arms around herself as if she were cold. It was a warm day, but I saw her shiver. She spoke softly, “Frank, I’m not going to marry Billy.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Does he know it yet?”
I started to say something, but it wasn’t any of my concern. Besides, the two groups of men had stopped and were now facing each other. Interestingly, they were about equidistant from Caroline and me, about 25 yards apart. The two owners and their gunmen were about 10 yards in front of their men.
Barker spoke first. “Giles, we can call this a draw and go home.”
Ridenour shook his head. “This valley isn’t big enough for both of us any more, Art, and you know it. I’m not about to give up what I’ve worked and sweated for the past 25 years. You’ve been overgrazing and your beef will be eatin’ on my grass before the end of summer. I can’t let that happen.”
Barker shook his head, and I could tell he was angry. “Ridenour, you are the one who has been overgrazing and you know it. There just isn’t enough grass in the valley for the size herd you’re trying to manage. Not with my herd as well.”
“I’m not the one overgrazing, Barker.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
Well, it looked to me like a classic “I said--you said--no, I didn’t--yes, you did” stalemate. “So what’s going to happen?” I whispered to Caroline.
She shivered again. “I don’t know.” I'm not sure why I thought she would.
Ridenour spoke. “After Benny here takes care of your man, I’ll give you a chance. I’ll even buy you out, Art, and you can leave the valley.”
“With my tail tucked between my legs. No, thanks. And if Landers kills Freitus?…”
Freitus snickered at that. “Fat chance,” he said, sneering at “Landers,” who gave no appearance of even noticing.
“On the off chance that happens,” Ridenour replied, “We’ll go from there.”
Barker started to say something, then stopped. With a sigh, he just turned and waved. “Ok. You two go at it.”
The Fraud smiled and he and Freitus approached each other. Both groups of cowboys spread out a bit so as not to be right behind either gunman. Nobody wanted to get hit by a stray bullet, though that was a possibility regardless.
“Landers,” Freitus said, “I’ve heard of you, of course. You’ve been all over the west dry-gulching anybody you don’t like. Never been man enough to stand up to anybody. Well, you’re going to meet me face-to-face and that will be the end of it.”
“Never dry-gulched anybody, Benny,” The Fraud said. “And I’ve downed a lot better men than you. I’ll give you a chance, if you want to ride on out of here. You’ll at least live to see tomorrow…”
Yack yack yack. These two toughs were shooting their mouths off before their shot their guns. It was pretty typical, designed to relieve tension and maybe catch the other guy off guard. Or make him mad enough so he couldn’t shoot straight. You look for any advantage when you’re staring death in the face. “Who’s going to win?” Caroline whispered to me, not taking her eyes off the scene being played out in front of her.
“The guy who shoots the straightest,” I said back. “And I have no idea who that might be.” Though I had a hunch….
Which turned out to be true. While Freitus was jawing, thinking he had The Fraud distracted, he went for his gun. But “Landers” was an old hat at this, apparently, and moved with lightening speed. Freitus got a shot off, but it landed in the dirt about 20 feet in front of his opponent. The Fraud put two bullets into Freitus, the first in his gut, the second in his heart. Benny Freitus toppled to the ground, dead.
I heard Caroline breathe out. I looked at Ridenour. He was staring, his face hard, at his dead gunslick. “Landers” was smirking, his gaze traveling back and forth over the Bar GR men. “Anybody else want a piece of that?” He looked at Ridenour. “You should have known better. Freitus wasn’t in my league. I’ve outdrawn Phil Parker, Evan Gurney, Kip Mangold, Tom McDonald…”
“Davey Gordon,” I put in.
He shot me a glance, a bit mystified. “Yeah. Davey Gordon…” I couldn’t help but smile. Caroline was looking at me. She was puzzled, too.
“Was that you that got Gordon?” somebody from the Bar GR asked. “I heard it was some guy named Jackson.”
“Don’t know how that rumor got started,” The Fraud said. “It was me, sure enough. Now, I suggest you boys pack up and go home or there’s going to be a mite of you not go anywhere but under six feet of dirt.”
Ridenour was turning red. “You can’t kill all of us, Landers. I’ve got some pretty mean guns behind me.” He looked at Barker. “You ready to start a war, Barker?”
"No, Giles, I’m not. If you want a war, you’ll have to start it.”
I heard Caroline groan, “Please, no,” she whispered. Ridenour was livid. He made a motion with his hand and his men began to come together behind him. As if on cue, Barker’s men did the same thing behind their boss. Those 40 idiots were going to stand there and blow each other to kingdom come.
They started walking towards each other…
Then a rifle exploded, twice….
Everybody looked at me, stunned. I had put a bullet two feet in front of Art Barker and another two feet in front of Giles Ridenour, which, of course stopped the forward progress of all concerned. “I’ll kill the first man who draws a gun,” I said. “And the second…and the third…”
“And just who might you be? And what concern is it of yours?” That was Ridenour, who had never seen me before.
I shrugged. “As to my concern in the matter, frankly, I don’t really have any. Except that somebody here has got to show some common sense. And 40 men blazing away at each other is the height of universal stupidity. Why don’t you two men just decide what land belongs to whom and put a fence on the border? And then, if one of you needs some extra grazing, pay the other for it. Ridenour, Barker, do you two hate each other so much…that you’ll take a number of good men to your graves with you?” I looked at the Rocking AT men and then at the Bar GR men, and shook my head in disgust. “Do you meatheads really want to die because of two men who have come to hate each other so much that this is nothing more than a personal vendetta between them?”
“We ride for the brand, mister,” one of Ridenour’s men said.
“Does that mean you're dumb enough to die for it? There’s a lot of good brands around that will be happy to pay you without getting you killed.” I looked at Trace Newsome. “Trace, get your men and ride out of here. And you said you had a buddy who worked for Ridenour. Tell him to do the same.”
Trace stared at me a moment, then nodded. He looked across the line. “Harry, how about it? This isn’t worth it.”
Ridenour’s foreman, Harry Cumber, considered a moment, then nodded. “No, it’s not. Mr. Ridenour, sorry, but that fellow had a good suggestion. You and Mr. Barker divide the land. We’ll fence it and you and he can pay for any extra grazing rights. There’s no reason this should be a killing matter.” He motioned to his men. “Come on, boys, let’s go home.”
Ridenour was about to explode. “Cumber! If you ride out of here, you just keep on riding because you won’t have a job! The rest of you men stay here! That’s an order!”
“Stay here and get killed?” one of his men responded. “No, thank you, Mr. Ridenour. We’ll stop at the ranch and you can give us our time and we’ll ride on. You ain’t worth dying for.”
Trace spoke to his cowboys. “Come on, fellows, let’s go. Mr. Barker?” he said, looking at his boss. The question was obvious—keep riding?
Barker was looking at me. “Go on home, Trace. We’ll talk about it when I get back.” He spoke to Ridenour. “Giles, come to my ranch tomorrow night and we’ll hammer out an agreement.”
But Ridenour was beyond reason. “NO!” And he went for his gun.
Everybody froze. He never got a shot away.
I fired the rifle again and put a bullet into his shoulder. He screamed and fell back, writhing on the ground. The Fraud started to draw his pistol, obviously intending to shoot Ridenour. That probably would have started the free-for-all that cooler heads had been trying to avoid. And it was no doubt something “Landers” wanted. More blood. More notches on his gun. He had no doubt he’d come out of it alive.
“Don’t do it, fellow,” I said, and put a bullet about six inches in front of his left boot.
He stopped. Slowly, he turned and faced me. “Who are you?” he said.
I was really getting tired of being asked that question. But if there were 40 pairs of eyes on that mesa, then all 40 were on me. I could see in my peripheral vision that Caroline was staring at me, wide-eyed…
Caroline actually looked at the man she knew as Hannibal Landers first and saw the blood lust in his eyes. Then she indeed started staring at the man she knew as Frank Pierce. And she—and everybody else—wanted the answer to “Landers” question. Yes, who are you? You just single-handedly stopped many good men from getting killed and probably saved my father’s life. Watch out for Landers. He wants to kill you…be careful, Frank…don’t let him…please don’t let him…
I sighed. I guess I couldn’t keep up the charade any longer. And I couldn’t let that killer keep using my name. Slowly, I set the rifle aside, but made no threatening move. I looked straight at The Fraud.
I didn't answer his question. Instead, I said to him, “I don’t know who you are, buddy, but I know who you’re not.”
He sneered. “And who am I not?”
“You're not Hannibal Landers.”
His eyes narrowed. “Oh? And what makes you think that?”
“Because I…am Hannibal Landers.”
Caroline gasped, staggered, and put her hand to her throat. No! Please no! You aren’t…you can’t be…not you. Oh, please say it’s not true…Please…
The jig was up as far as The Fraud was concerned. His masquerade was over and the only way he could continue to play the role of Hannibal Landers was to kill the man who had challenged him and say the fellow was lying. So he did exactly what I expected—he went for his gun.
He never got it into play, but went to his Maker with a bullet between his eyes.
I sighed, holstered my gun, and glanced at Caroline. She was still staring at me, horror in her eyes, and had backed up a step or two. “You…you can’t be…Hannibal Landers,” she said, barely above a whisper. “He was….”, meaning The Fraud.
Even Giles Ridenour had watched the play. He was now on his feet, holding his right shoulder. Again, 40 pair of eyes were looking at me. Art Barker, his face a mask of granite, came slowly walking in my direction. His men followed, and then Ridenour’s men headed over, too. This was way too good to leave in the middle of.
They all stopped in a semi-circle around me, but keeping their distance. “Are you really Hannibal Landers?” Barker asked me.
I gave him a wry smile. “Yeah. You can pay me what you were going to pay him.”
“What you did is worth it, mister, and a whole lot more.” Then he motioned with his thumb. “But then, who was that joker?”
"I haven’t the foggiest. Somebody who’s been running around the west killing people in my name.”
Caroline spoke, those hypnotic green eyes still as wide as she could get them. “Then…you’re not Frank Pierce?”
I gave her a half smile and said, “No. Franklin Pierce was President about 30 years ago.”
She continued. “But…you’re a murderer…”
I turned to her. “You didn’t hear what I said, Caroline. That man—“ pointing towards The Fraud—“has been going all over this country, claiming to be me, and killing people in my name. Why, I have no idea. I would have liked to have asked him, but he didn’t give me the chance. All I know is I never killed any of those people he claimed to have shot.” Then, I hesitated. “Well, I did kill Davey Gordon, but he drew on me first.”
“That was you?” somebody asked.
“That little snot nose was asking for it.”
Caroline wasn’t convinced, I guess. “But…but…New Mexico…”
I told her—and everybody else—the story. About Pa and Ma. And Arn Cooper. And…well, the whole story. “So, yeah, I left a few dead bodies down there.” I looked at Art Barker. “What would you have done if you had been me, Mr. Barker?”
He nodded. “The same thing you did, son. Totally justified. Giles?” He looked at Ridenour, who was still holding his shoulder and grimacing, but he had stuck a handkerchief against the wound to stem the bleeding.
“Yeah. No doubt about it.” Then he grunted a chuckled, and grimaced again. “And I reckon he would have been justified in drilling you and me, too, Art.”
I smiled at him. “I might oblige you yet, Mr. Ridenour, if you don’t take Mr. Barker’s offer up of a meeting tomorrow night at his ranch house.”
Ridenour sighed and lowered his head. “Yes. That’s the way to solve it. I’m sorry, Art, I lost my head. We can get this settled peaceable.”
Barker nodded. “I’m sorry, too, Giles. We both sat and stewed when we should have gotten together and settled it. You come on over and we’ll take care of it.” He held out his right hand, then realized Ridenour couldn’t move well because of the shoulder. “We’ll pretend we shook on it,”
Ridenour said, “My word’s good. I know yours is, too.” He looked at me. “You want a job, Mr. Landers? I heard you’re pretty good with horses.”
“Sorry, Giles, he’s already got an offer from me,” Barker said with a smile. He looked at me. “How about it?”
I threw a quick glance at Caroline. She was still staring at me, but the horror was out of her eyes. All I could see was…well, I didn’t know what I saw. “I don’t know, Mr. Barker. The sheriff wants me out of the area because he’s afraid every two-bit gun hustler will wander into Pine Valley now wanting to take me on. I told him I’d leave.”
Another quick glimpse at Caroline. Her eyes were down, not looking at me.
“You could keep the name Frank Pierce. That’s what we all knew you by anyway.”
I shook my head. “You’re forgetting the Ramsey brothers, Mr. Barker. It’s Frank Pierce any yahoo who thinks he’s fast with a gun will be aiming for. And besides, my name is Hannibal Landers. That’s the name my pa and ma gave me and I’d really like to use it again.” Then I sighed. “I don’t really see much chance of that, though. That name is marked for sure. I came up here hoping nobody would have heard of me. I guess I’ll have to go all the way to the North Pole for that.”
Barker was examining me critically, rubbing his chin. “But if things were different, would you go to work for me?” He gave a half smile. “Or Giles, if he outbid me.”
“Mr. Barker, I’d like to find my own spread. I’ve got the money. 30 a month and beans is not really what I want. From what I hear, you and Mr. Ridenour have got this valley pretty well sewed up. I’ll just move on north and see if anything is available up there.” Another side glance at Caroline. She was still examining the ground. Looking for bugs, I guess…
So, he’s not really a murderer after all…But does that change how I feel about him?…What DO I feel about him?…What does he feel about me? He’s never given me any clue…Caroline was afraid to look at him, afraid of what she might see, but not really sure what she did want to see. I guess he’s going to leave anyway…
Barker and I were still talking. “How much land do you want?” he asked me.
“How much will $15,000 buy me up here?”
“Depends on the grass, water, and how big a herd you start out with. A couple of sections, probably. Farther north, maybe a little more…”
Caroline looked sharply at her father. It sounds like he thinks Fra—Hannibal ought to go north, too. If he goes, I’ll never see him again…
The same thought sped fleetingly through my mind. If I leave, I’ll never see Caroline again. But then, will that bother her? She’s not going to marry Billy Williams, but that doesn’t mean she’ll marry me. And if some gun hound dry gulches me… “Yeah,” I said, with some reluctance, “I guess it would be better if I moved on.” Another quick glance at Caroline. More ground studying…
Barker was still looking at me intently. “Before you do, let’s talk. Come to my ranch house tonight. I’ve got an idea.”
“I don’t know what you can do, Mr. Barker, but I can do that.” A small smile. “I heard a rumor somewhere that Caroline is a pretty good cook. Wouldn’t mind have a home cooked meal, I can’t remember the last time I had one.”
Barker smiled. “She’s the best, and I’ll have her put on a feast.” Caroline was looking at me now. What do I see in her eyes? Hope? Fear? Trying to read a woman’s eyes was worse than trying to read Greek upside down in a dark attic at midnight…
What do I see in his eyes? Tenderness? Hesitancy? I’ve never been able to read his eyes…except I don’t see danger any more…
The meeting broke up. Ridenour needed to get his wound taken care of, though the bullet passed clean through and it shouldn’t be much of a problem for him. He again said he would meet Art Barker at the latter’s ranch house the next night. Hopefully, that end of the story would come out happy.
But I still didn’t know what Barker could do to keep Hannibal Landers in Pine Valley…