Chapter Two—Acquaintances and Surprises

     Caroline Barker was a little bit upset at some news she had just heard. Pine View Valley was about to erupt and her family was in the middle of it. Especially her father. In fact, he was one of the main instigators of the whole thing. And that upset Caroline more than just a little, to be honest.
     Pine Valley was the name of the town she lived in. It was in a lovely northern valley, surrounded by pine-covered peaks, some of which had snow on them all year round. She’d lived here all of her 22 years, it was home, all her friends were here—not to mention her family, which consisted only of her father and an uncle who lived with them—she loved it, and never wanted to leave. But trouble was brewing, big time, her father was heavily involved, and Caroline was worried. Big big time. Blood was liable to be shed, and above a drop or two. She wasn’t especially worried about her own life…but then, come to think of it, who would inherit the Rocking AT if Arthur Barker—her father—died suddenly? She would, not her uncle Rafe. And since Giles Ridenour apparently intended to have the entire valley…maybe she should worry about her own skin. And maybe her father knew what he was doing, after all.
     A little more background. There were two huge cattle spreads in the valley, and a few minor outfits, which would probably soon be gobbled up by one of the big outfits. The Barker’s Rocking AT covered about half the valley, and Ridenour’s Bar GR took up most of the rest. Neither really had a lawful claim to any of it; by that, I mean they only owned it by right of prior possession. Both Barker and Ridenour had been in the valley for over 25 years and had settled the place. Neither had filed or paid for one centimeter of the grass their cattle now grazed. But, it was a common story in the West of the 1800s—the pioneer finds an empty valley, starts grazing his herd, it grows, he gets rich and now the whole place belongs to him. Barker and Ridenour had actually come out together over two decades before. They had been good friends and had both pushed about 100 cattle onto the open range of Pine View Valley, divided the land and water, and gotten rich. For some reason that Caroline had never understood—greed, probably—about three years ago the two men had a terrible falling out, and now both of them wanted the whole valley.
     And both were hiring guns to get it.
     That’s what had upset Caroline that morning. She knew that Giles Ridenour had put Benny Freitus on his payroll, a man who lived by his gun. Totally ruthless, no conscience at all. And greased lightening when he drew. If he coaxed her father into a shootout, Art Barker was dead. Barker knew it. So, he had hired his own man…
     Caroline had ridden into town to do a little shopping that morning, and since her father rarely, if ever, discussed any business with her, it didn’t surprise her in the least when Betty Anderson stopped her on the street and informed her of what her father had done, i.e., bought his own hit man. It upset Caroline…a little bit. No, more than a little bit. This could mean all out war. The Rocking AT had 25 men working its range and Ridenour’s Bar GR had about the same. Lead was liable to start flying at any moment, and that meant dead bodies. Caroline knew all the men who worked her father’s ranch, and she liked most of them, considered them friends, though nothing more than that. She didn’t want them to die in some useless range war.
     “Where did you hear that?” Caroline had asked Betty when told of her father’s new employee.
     “Oh, it’s all over town, dear,” Betty had said with a sweet, yet insincere, smugness. “You didn’t know? I’m surprised.”
     No, she’s not, Caroline thought, or she never would have told me. “Well, my father doesn’t tell me much about that end of things…" or anything else, for that matter.
     “Well, now you know,” Betty had replied. “Things are liable to get pretty exciting around her in the near future.”
     That’s not what Pine Valley needed. There had been some surveying done in the nearby mountains and some mineral—mostly silver—had been found. Now mining interests were moving in. And attracting men to work the mines—men who were far from the salt of the earth. Pine Valley was laid out on a northwest-southeast axis, and the northwest part of town was beginning to sprout more undesirable businesses—saloons, whorehouses, dance halls, and whatever other dens of iniquity the baser element of humanity could invent. Caroline was…far from ugly, to put it mildly. She was about 5’6, with dark hair that curled down just below her shoulders, hypnotic green eyes that she didn’t realize were hypnotic, and a female figure that was the envy of every female in town. And attracted the eye of every single male in Pine Valley, and most of the married ones, too. And now, those unsalt-of-the-earth ruffians that the mining business was bringing in weren’t exactly ignoring her, either. It was aggravating Caroline quite a bit. She knew she wasn’t without feminine charms, but she did underestimate her attractiveness to the opposite sex. Frankly, she just didn’t notice that much. Sure, she liked men, but she wasn’t obsessed with them. And all too often, they proved to be a huge annoyance. An annoyance she didn’t need with the valley liable to explode into open range warfare any moment now. And actually, as we shall see in a few pages, she didn’t have the annoyance at the moment anyway, at least not in the form of multiple suitors.
     So, as she walked, a little too rapidly, down the boardwalk, heading for the dress shop, her mind was in turmoil and angst. She wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to where she was going; she knew where she was going and it didn’t take much mental exercise. Cross Lincoln Street—a side street—and then two doors past the hotel. She’d done it countless times before.
     But this time something a little strange happened. As she crossed Lincoln, she glanced up and saw someone coming out of the hotel. He looked at her, too. He wasn’t especially handsome, but he wasn’t an ogre. He was obviously new in town because Caroline knew all the locals, and besides he was coming out of the hotel. His clothes were dusty, his dark brown hair under his sweat stained hat was sticking out in all directions, and he appeared to be the perfect picture of a drifting bum. Except…his eyes. Deep blue. Intelligent. Intense. Missed nothing. Penetrating. Caroline’s eyes locked with his for a moment too long, and she shuddered. Tramp or not, this man was dangerous. She sensed that immediately. Is this the man my father hired? But he’s not even wearing a gun…She diverted her glance, but she was still somewhat flustered by him. As she went up the step to the boardwalk, she tripped and started to fall.
     Strong hands caught her. She looked up—into deep blue, intelligent, intense, missed nothing, penetrating eyes…eyes that seemed to explore the nether regions of her soul….

     The eyes were mine, although I had absolutely no clue regarding the woman’s diagnosis of them—I didn’t know her name at the time, obviously. I wasn’t much with the opposite sex, hadn’t spent too much time with them, and frankly, had had more on my mind in my 23 years of living than Suzy Q or Janie P. So while I knew a pretty woman when I saw one, and the lady I had my hands on—uh, under her armpits to catch her before she fell—was undoubtedly very attractive, that was about all I thought of her at the moment.
     I guess, given the fact that my imminent demise was the subject that ended the previous chapter, I should recount briefly what happened. Davey Gordon, as noted and as I suspected, went for his gun at the count of two—and he claimed I was a cheater. He barely got his gun out of his holster and never got a shot away. Two bullets, which were fired so fast that they sounded like one, hit him in the heart and you could have covered the holes in his chest with a quarter. I wasn’t especially given to missing what I shot at. Especially if it was primed to shoot back.
     Davey’s eyes got big, but he was dead on his feet, and then dead on his face. I just shook my head, ejected the two cartridges and reloaded my gun, hooked a boot in Raven’s stirrup, and swung into the saddle. By that time, a few of the good citizens of Grungy had overcome their shock.
     “Did…did you see that? He outdrew Davey Gordon…”
     “Gordon barely cleared leather…”
     “Nobody can move that fast. How did he do that?”
     Yack yack yack. People can sure get excited when a dead body is lying in the street.
     I turned Raven, intending on riding out of town, which is what I had intended to do when Gordon interrupted me. But I wasn’t to get away just yet.
     A man in a light brown suit with a string tie stepped in front of me. “Mister, do you know what you just did?”
     I shrugged. “Shot somebody who lied about me and drew on me. Self-defense. You saw it. It doesn’t happen to me every day, but when it does, well, I do what I have to do.” I gave him a rueful grin. “Sounds like I did the world a favor.”
     I don’t think he was paying much attention to my words. “You just outdrew Davey Gordon. Nobody outdraws Davey Gordon.” I thought those two sentences were not the most logically connected I had ever heard.
     I shrugged again. “Then call me Mr. Nobody.”
     “Who are you?”
     I didn’t want to be interviewed, so I simply said, “Somebody who doesn’t like being called a cheater and having a gun drawn on him.” I pulled on Raven’s reins, directed him around the man, and said, “You folks have a nice day. And clean up the trash on your street.”
     I set my horse on a slow trot toward the far end of town. People were lining the boardwalks, staring at me. I smiled and touched my hat brim to a couple of ladies, heard somebody else ask, “who are you?”, didn’t answer, and in a couple of minutes had left Grungy behind. Never even saw the sheriff.
     I had absolutely no idea that, after I was gone, a couple of men ran into the hotel and checked the register.
     “Says here his name is ‘A. Jackson.’” Man A looked at Man B. “I’ve never heard of him.”
     A voice from behind. “Chuck Cochrane played poker with him yesterday. Said he told them his name was Andrew.”
     Man A gave Man B a face. “Andrew? Andrew Jackson?” He shook his head. “Well, by outdrawing Davey Gordon, he’ll have every gunslick in the territory after him now trying to build their own reputation…”
     ‘Cept I had no intention of staying in that territory.

     My encounter with Davey Gordon had been three weeks in the past and so, when I prevented the nice lady from embarrassing herself too much, I was several hundred miles and two territories away from Grungy. And even farther away from the place I once called home.
     Anyway, as soon as the stumbling beauty got stable on her feet again, I released her. “Are you all right?” I asked her.
     “Yes…yes,” she stammered. “Thank…you. I was…I wasn’t paying any attention and was walking too fast.” She smiled at me, a somewhat self-conscious smile. “Lucky for me you were there. Thank you again.”
     Yeah. Hypnotic green eyes. And a smile that would melt an iceberg. But I wasn’t an iceberg.
     But maybe I was an ice cube…With the bright red dress with white lace borders she was wearing, those green eyes made her look almost like a Christmas tree. Upside down, I guess,  But still a very beautiful one. With an angel on top…her.
     Be that as it may, we stared at each other for a moment, and I smiled back and replied, “You’re welcome. Although maybe I should thank you. It’s not every day a pretty lady drops into my hands. In fact, I can’t ever remember it happening. They are usually tripping over themselves to get away from me.”
     She blushed at my compliment then said, “Oh, I doubt that very seriously.” We eyeballed each other again, then she said, “I guess…you’re new in town. Just passing through?”
     I paused before answering, and gave the question some thought. And then told her the truth, at least part of it. “Well, actually, I’m kinda looking for a place to settle. Had…a ranch down in New Mexico, but, uh, had to sell out.” I gave her a whimsical smile. “Thought I’d roam around a little, see if I could find something I liked. It’s pretty here. I don’t guess you’re the local land agent and could tell me if anything is available at the moment.”
     I saw a strange look come into her eyes, something that for all the world appeared to be horror. But it quickly passed, and she started stammering again, “Well…I’m not sure that…this is…” She was interrupted.
     She reacted, thus I assumed that was her name, we hadn’t introduced. So I looked, too. And raised my eyebrows. Man Mountain was coming across the street. Or maybe Man Volcano because he appeared ready to erupt…

     Oh, no, Billy, not now, Caroline thought, as she saw the man approaching. She wasn’t always unhappy to see Billy, and even liked him when he wasn’t drunk, but at the moment, she wasn’t pleased with his appearing on the scene. Now wasn’t the time or place because she wasn’t quite through talking to the man with the dangerous eyes. She sighed. Well, it looks like I AM through talking with him…

     The man was 6’5” and weighed 250 if he was an inch and a pound. With shoulders like a gorilla. I wasn’t tiny—about 6 foot even and a little under 200—but this guy dwarfed me. He looked like trouble and I wasn’t even in a saloon.
     He wasn’t a bad looking fellow, except his black eyebrows were a little too bushy. His hair was thick and black, curled halfway over his ears and down just over his collar in back. His blue eyes were fairly fierce at the moment and the fierceness was directed at me.
     “Who are you?” he said, as in “What’s the name of the poor sucker I’m fixing to grind into powder?”
     I started to say something, but Caroline quickly interrupted. “Billy, he’s just a nice man who kept me from falling down. I tripped coming up the step and he caught me.” It didn’t placate Billy very much.
     “Yeah, I saw him with his hands on you, how he was lookin’ at you, and smilin’.” He came up to me and poked a finger that resembled a sausage into my chest and said, “Listen, bucko, Caroline is my woman. You got that? I don’t want to ever see you talking to her, lookin’ at her, or even on the same side of the street as she is. You see her comin’, you head across the road. Unnerstand?”
     I held my hands up in a conciliatory gesture. “That’s fine, Billy, I meant no harm and I’m not looking for trouble. Caroline is right, she tripped and I caught her. It was nothing more than that. Nothing more intended.”
     “Well, just make sure you don’t intend any more, mister, or I’ll add some more dust to the street—you.” He looked at the woman and grabbed her hand. “Come on, Caroline, I want to show you them pretty new earrings I was tellin’ you about.”
     He half dragged her off. She glanced back at me with an apologetic expression on her face. I smiled at her and made an “It’s ok” motion. She seemed a bit mollified, but still in some distress…
     Caroline wished Billy would quit saying that—that she was his woman. She was no such thing, though again, she did like him. And he wasn’t bad looking. The problem was, he had pretty well intimidated every other man in town into staying away from her. And, as noted, while Caroline was far from a pants-chaser, she didn’t mind attention from the opposite sex, and Billy Williams pretty well prevented that. She was going to have to get this straight with him. Well, she’d already tried, but he could be pretty bull-headed. She might need a 2x4 to get his attention.
     She was a little disappointed when the stranger backed down. I wish he had stood up to Billy. I wish SOMEBODY would. But then, Billy would probably have started swinging and killed him. I didn’t even get his name. I wonder if he’ll stay around, but if he wants some land…She sighed again. Billy was talking to her, everybody on the boardwalk was getting out of their way, and she was probably going to end up with a new pair of earrings she didn’t want but would have to wear. She threw a quick glance back at the hotel, but the stranger wasn’t there. Well, he’ll never talk to me again anyway

     It wasn’t my highest priority at the moment—talking to Caroline. It was nigh on noon and I hadn’t eaten all day so finding a restaurant was step one. I spied a greasy spoon across the street and down aways from the hotel—in the opposite direction from where Caroline and Billy were headed. I’d eat, then get cleaned up. Food before fashion…
     The restaurant—Wiggly’s, it was called and I hoped it wasn’t because it served worms for meat—was pretty well packed, which was a good sign. A lot of people implied that the food might be edible. Or it might imply a lot of people with no taste buds. Well, nothing for it. I was going to eat here, live or die.
     There were no tables available, but there was an empty stool at the counter so I took it. I nodded to an old timer sitting next to me, picked up a menu, and surveyed it.
     “What’s good?” I asked him.
     “Chicken’s the best, but Wiggly serves a pretty good steak, too, if that’s yer fancy.”
     It was, and when the waitress came over, that’s what I ordered.
     “Ain’t seen ye around before,” the old timer said. “You driftin’?”
     Was it that obvious? “Well, yes and no. Had a ranch down south, sold out of sorts, and thought I’d come up here to see if I could find something. I like the mountains and I’m tired of the heat. This is a pretty valley. Anything available?” Old timers knew everything in a town this size.
     “Hmph,” the fellow snorted. “Better keep ridin’. Fixin’ to have a range war.”
     “Oh?” I’d never heard such a tale before—and pardon my sarcasm.
     “Yeah. Art Barker’s got the Rocking AT and Giles Ridenour the Bar GR. Both own ‘bout half the valley and both want all of it. They’s fixin’ to go to war to see who gets it.” He shook his head. “Gonna be some blood flow afore it’s all over, ‘specially since they both hired top gunmen.”
     I wasn’t terribly interested if there wasn’t any land available. But, to be nice, I kept the conversation going. “Who did they hire?”
     “Ridenour’s got Benny Freitus. Sidewinder if there ever was one, but hell on wheels with a gun.” I’d heard of Freitus and the old timer’s assessment matched other descriptions I’d had of the gunman. He continued. “Heard just this mornin’ who Barker’s got comin’.”
     “Who?” I asked, really starting to lose interest, especially since my tummy was growling. I’d had my fill of gunslingers anyway, with Davey Gordon.
     “Hannibal Landers. Kilt half of New Mexico is what I hear and eight or nine men since then, and his rep has reached here. He should be here any day now.”
     I almost fell off my stool. I stared at the old man. He gave me a curious look. “Did I say somethin’ wrong? You know Landers?”
     I caught myself. “Oh, no, not at all. I’ve…heard of situations like this before and…was just…sorry to hear that you have the problem here. I like the looks of the area, but I sure don’t want to get caught up in a range war.”
     “Yeah. You’d be better off movin’ on. Try Bitter Creek 30 miles or so north. They may have somethin’ you’d like.”
     I mumbled a “thanks,” and then my food came and we quit talking. But my mind was in a whirlwind and I didn’t want to talk any more anyway.
     You see, my name really isn’t Andrew Jackson. And it isn’t Frank Pierce, either, as I had signed the hotel register a little while ago.
     My name is Hannibal Landers.

     No, I hadn’t killed half of New Mexico, but I had left a few dead bodies down there. Which was one reason I was where I was now, over 1,500 miles from the place. Hoping nobody had heard of me, though I used fake names just in case.
     Well, it appears that people had heard of me. That was bad enough news, but what was worse was that nobody—not Art Barker, Giles Ridenour, or the devil himself—had hired me to do anything.
     So who had Barker hired? I’m sure he probably thought he was getting Hannibal Landers. But he wasn’t. And only two people knew it—me and the fraud.
     Who was impersonating me? I didn’t like that one bit, and any thought I had had of leaving Pine Valley because of the unavailability of land was quickly expunged from my mind.
     I wasn’t going anywhere for a while.
     But I would keep an eye out for which side of the street Caroline was walking on…