Chapter One—Playing the Odds

     I wasn’t that good of a poker player, but I was better than these guys.
     My Pa actually taught me a little bit about the game. Apparently he played some before he and Ma got married, but she wouldn’t let him after that. But he knew a few tricks, and on cold winter nights, when there wasn’t anything else to do, he and I would play for matches and he’d give me a pointer or two. Ma wouldn’t let me go to saloons, but I didn’t always do what my ma said. And I was usually the worse for it.
     Anyway, it was just after noon and I was drifting. My horse, Raven—called that because he was pitch black from head to hoof to rump—had thrown a shoe, so he was limping pretty badly. Fortunately, we came upon a town, a place appropriately named Grungy. Which was sort of how I felt, so I thought I’d stay the night and share a hotel room with the bed bugs I expected to be there.
     I had been riding in some low rolling, grassy hills, so I saw the town when I topped a knoll. I took a moment to look over Grungy, which was about half a mile below. Pretty typical for the area—mostly ranching. One main street, maybe a mile long, a couple of cross streets, with some minor lanes intersecting them—the residential area for the good folks of Grungy, those who weren’t ranchers. The merchants, etc. always flocked to where they could make a buck and that was true here as well.
     Anyway, Raven limped on down into the town and the first building we came to was the blacksmith’s shop. I stopped, told him my problem, he looked at Raven, and said he could have a new shoe by the next morning. Sounded good to me.
     “Can you take him to the livery for the night when you finish?” It was right across the street. “I’ll settle up with both of you in the morning.”
     He eyed me narrowly. “How do I know you’ll be in town in the morning?”
     I gave him a “get real” look, as in “where in the world would I go on foot?” But what I said was, “Would you leave a horse like that behind?”
     Raven was a good horse. Better than good. One of the best I’d ever seen and I knew horse flesh. Smitty did, too—I guess that was the blacksmith’s name, that’s what they are all called. He acquiesced. “Yeah. See what you mean. This is one fine horse.” Then he grinned at me. “How much you want for him?”
     “More than you got,” I said to him. I pulled my saddle bags, rifle, and blanket roll off the horse and made ready to leave. “Hotel in town?” I asked him.
     He nodded. “Such as it is. Other side of the street, first cross street, first building. Can’t miss it, though you might want to.”
     I grunted. I’d been in places like that before. “Who’s got the best grub?”
     He scratched his chin, as if in thought. “You a religious fellow?”
     I sort of shrugged. Ma had tried to instill some of that into me, with varying degrees of success, usually depending on how much trouble I was in with her or Pa. “Why?”
     “You might want to fast.” I grunted again. He continued. “But there’s a place about two doors down from the hotel—Donna’s—that might not kill you.” He smiled ruefully. “But if you tell me you’re going to eat there, I might want payment in advance.”
     I just shook my head. “Well, keep the horse if I don’t come back.”
     “That’d be fair,” he said. “Charley over to the livery can have the saddle. Awful good one.” And it was.
     Anyway, I headed down to the hotel, got a room for the night, and was thirsty. Not hungry yet, I’d munched on some jerky on the way into town. The hotel didn’t have a restaurant, and I thought I’d wait to try Donna’s for dinner. That meant the saloon for now, which was the only place I could get a bottle of sarsaparilla.
     Like I mentioned, Ma told me not to go into saloons, and I usually did listen to her about that. I had never been in one where somebody didn’t start some trouble, and sometimes it was me who started it. But it was barely 1 PM in the afternoon. How could I get into trouble that time of day?
     I should have known better. I did know better. But I went anyway.
     I guess I need to return to the first sentence of this story—about me being a better gambler than the fellows I was playing with. But I had to tell why I ended up in that saloon in the first place. I went in, and sure enough, the place was largely empty. There was one fellow standing at the bar and he appeared to be in inebriation heaven, so I didn’t expect any hassle from him. There were only four other patrons and they were sitting at a table—playing poker.
     I ordered my drink and paid for it. I turned and leaned on the bar, and just about that time, one of the men at the poker table made a disgusted sound, threw his cards down, and said, “Well, that finishes me, boys. I’ll get it back next time.” He stood up, obviously intending to leave. Which he did. Which, of course, left only three men at the table. Nobody likes to play three-handed poker. So, one of the fellows spied me and hollered, “Hey, would you like to join us?”
     Well, Ma was sitting on my right shoulder telling me not to, and the devil was sitting on my left shoulder encouraging me to do the opposite of what Ma on my right shoulder was advising. I don’t have to tell you to whom I listened. I didn’t have anything else to do that afternoon anyway.
     But I wasn’t totally stupid. I walked over to the table and said, “Yeah, ok. But on one condition.”
     The three men scrutinized me. Two of them looked like obvious cowboys in town wasting their money, the other fellow looked like a thug. Well, actually he was a pretty good looking thug, but his ice blue eyes held no warmth. No pun intended.
     One of the cowboys responded. “What’s that?”
     I pulled out my pocket watch and held it up. “I’m leaving at 5 PM. Period. Win or lose. If I’m ahead, I don’t want to hear any whining about you wanting a chance to win your money back. I’m outta here regardless or no deal.”
     Ice Eyes sort of sneered at me. “What makes you think you’re going to be ahead?”
     I shrugged. “Not saying I am. Just telling you how this cow is going to eat his cabbage.” I glanced around the table. “Deal or no?”
     The three men looked at each other. Nobody seemed to have any objections. “We may all be gone by then anyway.”
     “Fair enough.”
     I sat down and was told the game was five-card draw. My favorite. We all got introduced—first names only. Ice Eyes was Davey, and the other two were Chuck and Buck. Wasn’t too hard to remember that.
     “I’m Andrew,” I said, and they acted like they didn’t care much. And they probably didn’t. I was just a pile of money they hoped to end up with. Come to think of it, that’s all they were to me, too.
     Well, the afternoon passed pleasantly enough. At least for me. As I mentioned—back to sentence one—these fellows weren’t very good, though I got the impression that Ice Eyes was getting a little irritated. He was the best of the three and he was losing. And he didn’t like it. But I was getting good cards, too, and that helps. It doesn’t matter how good a poker player you are, if you never get a hand better than a pair of deuces, you aren’t going to win much. One can only bluff so far.
     I had some better hands than that, and the two cowboys were pretty good at tipping off when they were holding something they liked, so I avoided those pots. And by 5 PM, I was a good $150 ahead—about $50 from each of them. I held up my pocket watch again for all of them to see.
     “Five o’clock, boys. Your word is your word, I hope.”
     They didn’t like it, but they didn’t do anything but grumble. Except Ice Eyes. His look would have frozen the basement of Hades. Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t the basement of Hades.
    So I scooped up my winnings, thanked them kindly for a nice afternoon, and headed off to Donna’s, feeling pretty good about myself. I hadn’t been broke by any stretch of the imagination, but hey, 150 bucks is 150 bucks, which is almost half a year’s salary for a cowboy.
     Which made me wonder where those cowboys got all that money to gamble with. Well, no big deal. They didn’t have it any more.

     Actually, there wasn’t any trouble until the next morning. Donna’s meal wasn’t the best, but it was edible and I didn’t die during the night. I had the hotel draw me up a bath, took a long one, got all my clothes laundered, and then went up to my room for the evening. It was barely 7 PM when I got there, but I was tired and had no desire to have another bottle of sarsaparilla. I read the Bible for a couple of hours to clear my conscience from having gambled—a conscience that would have bothered me a whole lot more had I lost $150 instead of won it—then went to sleep.
     Anyway, in the morning, I went down to the blacksmith shop and paid Smitty, then across the street to get Raven, and settled up with Charley, the hostler. Everything was going well. I inspected Smitty’s work, and it was good. Raven seemed comfortable with it, too, and that was what counted.
     All was well till I hit the General Store to pick up a few supplies. I ordered and received what I wanted, and as I was tying my new goodies onto the back of my saddle in preparation for departing the fair city of Grungy, I heard a voice from the street.
     “You aren’t planning on leaving town without giving me a chance to win back that money you cheated me out of yesterday, are you, mister?”
     I glanced over and saw Davey—Ice Eyes—with his hands locked to his gun belt and standing with—ice in his eyes. I just glanced at him up and down and then went back to what I was doing. “I didn’t take you for a sore loser, Davey. You seem more of a man than that.”
     He didn’t particular like the implication that I was insulting his manhood. “I don’t mind losing, but I don’t like to be cheated. And it was obvious that you were cheating. Big time.”
     By this time, we had started to draw a little bit of a crowd. Or maybe, more accurately, what crowd there was, was beginning to scatter. But I leaned on Raven and looked at Davey. “Mister, I don’t know how to cheat at poker, and I don’t appreciate, in the least, the suggestion that I was dishonest. I won your money fair and square. Now, get over losing, or go cry on somebody else’s shoulder.”
     I heard a gasp or two when I said that. Davey’s eyes blazed, which was sort of hard to do since they were made out of ice. But now they had fire in them. “I’ll forget you said that, saddle tramp, if you’ll just return the money you stole from me yesterday. With a little bit of interest for the aggravation I had of putting up with a cheater.”
     I was getting disgusted now. I don’t mind being called a saddle tramp. I guess I was one at the moment, and I’d been called worse. But I did object to being called a cheater. “Buddy, why don’t you just go crawl back into whatever hole you slithered out of, and I’ll get on out of town and we’ll both be happy.”
     More gasps and then finally somebody spoke up. “Mister, don’t you know who you are talking to? That’s Davey Gordon.”
     Hmm. Well, that did turn over a rock with a rattlesnake beneath it. Davey Gordon had the reputation of being just about the fastest draw this side of the Mississippi, and the other side, too, if he had been there. Scuttlebutt had it that some of the west’s fastest—Hardin, Thompson, both Mastersons, and even Wild Bill had backed down in front of this fellow, but scuttlebutt has a way of getting bigger with the telling. Yet Gordon’s reputation wasn’t undeserved by any stretch of the imagination. He was fast, and probably had two dozen notches in his gun. But I didn’t feel like backing down. I sneered at Gordon. “A snake is a snake, regardless of what his handle is.”
     Gordon was livid now. “Mister, you just paid your ticket to Boot Hill.” His hands dropped to his side, his right one curled just above his gun handle. “Get ready to draw.” I love how eloquent these fellows are.
     “And if I don’t?” I asked. “Are you going to shoot me down in cold blood in front of the whole town?”
     He returned my sneer. “It wouldn’t be the first time. You think any town sheriff is going to arrest me?”
     No, probably not, unless he wanted to be pushing up daisies. And Grungy was obviously a town full of gutless men who wouldn’t stand up to a gunslinger, so Gordon doubtless had everything his own way. Including getting his money back when he lost at poker.
     I was going to say something intelligent like, “I’m not looking for trouble,” but I guess it was too late for that. I could have given him his money back, but I don’t like thieves. Besides, if he killed me, I wouldn’t be around very long to know about it, would I. And this will be an awfully short story.
     Why hadn’t I listened to Ma yesterday when she was sitting on my right shoulder?
     I didn’t have much choice, I guess. Gordon was about 40 feet away, standing in the middle of the street. I moved away from Raven—I didn’t want him to get hit by any stray bullets, though any bullet from me would have to be awfully stray to nick him. Wasn’t too worried about my bullets, though.
     “All right, Gordon. You want your money back, come get it.”
     “I’ll take it off your dead body. Count of three.” Another sneer; he was good at it. “I’ll even wait till three-and-a-half to give you a sporting chance.”
     Did I mention I was wearing a gun? No, I hadn’t mentioned that, but I was. Most men in the west did, though not very many knew how to use them all that well.
     Gordon started counting. He didn’t get to be where he was—a living gunman—by telling the truth. He did what I expected. Right after he said, “Two,” he went for his gun…

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…

Chapter Three—Hannibal Landers

     Well, I guess I better spend a little time introducing myself and explaining why I was in Pine Valley and had left a few dead bodies in New Mexico. It wasn’t a pretty story.
     My Pa and Ma were named Joshua and Claire Landers. They were good people, very good, and they did their best to raise me, their only child. Not only were Josh and Claire good people, they tended to be exceptional people. Both of them were as sharp as a whip, Ma had talents as a musician, seamstress, candle maker, and a few other things that were just natural to her. Pa was strong, and a natural around a ranch—horses and cattle both seemed to understand him and respond to him. Pa and Ma were both kind, gentle people, though Pa wouldn’t back down to anybody. He didn’t go looking for trouble, but he didn’t avoid it when it found him. And I never knew it when trouble wished it hadn’t found him. Except once. More on that later. Bottom line is, both of my parents were well-loved and well-respected in the Rio Plata area in which we lived.
     Their only child, Hannibal—me—seemed to inherit some of the traits of both parents, or a combining thereof. I never got the hang of candle making, though. Incidentally, my friends used to call me “HanLan,” which I didn’t especially like, but I never objected. Unless somebody started making fun of me and then I’d belt him and that would be the end of it.
     We Landers—Pa and Ma, actually—owned a small ranch, about a section, and we ran some cattle and horses, raised a few chickens and pigs, and did all right. We didn’t get wealthy, but we didn’t starve, either. In fact, we even had one luxury—a Japanese cook. Ma Landers was outstanding in the kitchen, but Pa hired the Jap anyway and it did take a burden off ma’s shoulders. And that little yellow monkey was good at other things besides cooking. More on that later, too.
     Me? I worked the cattle, mostly, and went to school. I had a quick mind and, from the very earliest stages of my life, lightening quick reactions. Pa said that in a duel between me and a rattler to see who could strike first, he would have bet on me every time. I decided never to test his hypothesis. But I knew, from playing games with the other boys in the area, that I had a little something they didn’t have. I didn’t show off or boast about it, but I knew it was there.
     And, one more thing. Pa put a pistol in my hand for the first time when I was five years old. Set up five bottles 50 feet away and told me to see how close I could get to any of them. After six shots, four of the bottles were gone. I remember Pa’s dumbstruck face, and then he laughed.
     “Boy,” he said, “if we get attacked by Injuns, I’m gonna put you in the front line.” At five years old, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. I mean, Pa had told me to shoot the bottles and that’s what I did. I was upset that I had missed one of them, and I thought he would be, too. Apparently he wasn’t.
     Anyway, as I said, I generally worked the cattle. I had to stay out with the herd--we generally had about 50--because our land wasn't fenced and I needed to keep them from wandering.  We didn't have any water, either, except for that which we pumped out of a windmill near the house, so I'd head the cattle in each night, let them drink, then pen them up.  And do it all over again the next day.  It can get kinda boring watching cattle eat, so I spent a few years learning more about how to use a gun. And a rifle. After that much practice, I could pretty well shoot a fly on the wing. And I spent considerable amount of my bored time working on a quick draw. Not that I ever intended to be a gunslick. I was just…bored watching cattle eat.
     Pa knew I could shoot, but he never really paid much mind until I was about 15. Then one day he came out on the range. I was idly fiddling with my gun and he asked, “How good are you with that thing now?”
     I glanced at him. About that time a sparrow came flying by, a little too low. I holstered, drew, and blew the poor little critter out of the sky. I immediately felt regret because I hated killing anything but snakes and spiders. But Pa had asked so I thought I’d show him.
     He pursed his lips, then looked at me seriously. “Watch that, Hannibal,” he said. “There prolly ain’t another man alive that can do that. And I never even saw you move.” Then he nodded towards my rifle. “How about that thing?”
     I unsheathed the rifle—I had a Sharps at the time—and looked around, finally spotting a likely target. “You see that little rock sitting on that big boulder over yonder?” I pointed.
     Pa nodded. “That’s at least 500 yards away.”
     “Uh huh.” I aimed, fired, and the rock disappeared. “That was an easy shot,” I said, and Pa laughed. I didn’t know why, I was being serious. I could shoot the antennae off an ant at 600 yards. I’m being a little facetious, but hey, I like to brag sometimes, too. And it ain’t braggin’ if’n ye kin do it…
     Then he got serious. “Don’t ever aim at anything with two legs that doesn’t aim at you first. Never kill a man, Hannibal, who isn’t asking for it and doesn’t need it.”
     “Yessir.” I knew there were some rotten folks in the world, but I had never thought about killing any of them. I played with my guns because I was…bored watching cattle eat.

     But, unfortunately, some of the seedier constituents of humanity tested me the next year. I was sitting under a tree, sharpening my throwing knife—I was pretty good with it, too—when I saw three men riding in my direction. I stood up and watched them come. As they rode nearer, I didn’t like what I saw—three Mexicans, dirty, grimy, sunburned, and mean looking. They pulled up about 30 feet from me and one of them grinned, but it wasn’t because he was being friendly.
     “Ah, what have we here?” he asked. “A muchacho guarding the cattle, no? They leave such a young boy to do a man’s job?”
     “I get by,” I said, my eyes narrow as I watched them. All three were armed and looked mighty dangerous.
     “I am sure you do, muchacho.” He spoke to his companions. “And look, Pedro, Felix—the little muchacho wears a big gun.” He laughed out loud and his companions laughed with him. Then to me, El Boca Grande said, “You must be careful, muchacho, not to shoot yourself in the foot.”
     “I’ll keep that in mind,” I replied. I hadn’t moved.
     The leader seemed to be a little perplexed that I wasn’t intimidated and scared. He scrutinized me up and down. “We would like to…borrow…some of your cows, muchacho. Do you have any objection?”
     “How many do you want to…’borrow’?” I asked, just making conversation now. These guys were rustlers, which I suspected all along, and I imagined they wanted to “borrow” all of what we had.
     And sure enough, Boca Grande replied, “All of them.” And he and his compadres laughed out loud again.
     “And if I object?” I answered.
     “Then we kill you.” Another laugh.
     “Well, feller,” I said, “My pa would be awful mad if I let you borrow all of our cows. But he might not be quite as mad if I died while you were doing it. So I reckon the answer is no, you can’t have our cattle, and yes, you’ll have to kill me to get them.”
     “Aw, it is such a shame that one so young has to die…” And as he was talking, he went for his gun.
     He barely got his hand around the grip. The other two never even touched their guns.
     I sighed, holding a smoking gun. I hadn’t wanted to do that, but honestly, it hadn’t been too hard, either. I learned right then that killing human snakes wasn’t much more difficult than killing snake snakes. But I hoped I wouldn’t have to do it again.
     I had knocked the three banditos from their horses with my bullets, so I loaded them up and took them back to the house. Pa was chopping wood and I could see his eyes narrow as I approached, leading three horses with dead bodies draped over them.
     “Rustlers,” I said, as he pulled the hair of one of them, lifting his head to look at him. I saw him wince at the bullet hole in the middle of the outlaw’s forehead. The other two fellows had similar holes.
     Pa glanced at me, a grave expression on his face, and nodded. “Take them into town to the sheriff.” So I did.
     Come to find out these were the Vasquez boys. I’d heard of them. They’d been rustling cattle in New Mexico for a long time. The sheriff was surprised when I brought them in.
     “Your pa get ‘em?” he asked me.
     “No. I did.”
     “You mean you helped him?”
     “No. I mean I got them all by myself.”
     He inspected the bodies and looked very skeptical. “You mean to tell me you shot all three of these hoodlums, in the forehead, all by yourself? You expect me to believe that?”
     “I don’t care if you do or not,” I replied. “Do you want them or would you prefer I dump them out in the desert somewhere and so that the buzzards can eat?”
     He scratched his jaw, not sure whether to believe me or not. I had kept my abilities with a gun out on our property so he had no idea how good I was. “No, I have to take them. You’ve got a reward coming, you know. $500 for each of them. I’ll get it to you in a couple of days.”
     “Great,” I said as I mounted my horse. “I can buy a new pair of boots…”
     And apparently nobody else believed I killed the Vasquez boys all by my lonesome, either, because I was never asked about it. I was still Josh and Claire Landers’ snotty nosed punk kid…

     Kiko was the name of our Japanese cook. He didn’t say much, but we all got along. One reason he didn’t say much is that he didn’t speak much English. Or at least he didn’t speak much. He seemed to understand every word we said, though.
     He was maybe 10 years older than me; it was hard to tell. One day I was flipping my knife against the barn door and he came up. “We fight,” he said.
     I gave him a puzzled look. “Do what?”
     “You. Me. Fight.”
     “I show you how.”
     Well, I thought I already knew how. I could lick any boy my age in town and not work up a sweat. “Kiko, I know how to fight. Thanks, anyway.”
     “No, you not know. I show you.”
     I sighed. He was at least a half a foot shorter than me and 50 pounds lighter. I didn’t want to hurt him so I’d try not to.
    “All right,” I said, and quickly feinted a left towards him, intending to deck him with my right. Getting the first punch in was always a good thing in a scrap.
     About two seconds later, I was flat on my back looking up at the sky. I had no idea what had happened except that I had done a flip over Kiko’s shoulder. I got up, looked at him strangely, and made another move on him. And ended up watching clouds again.
     I wasn’t stupid. I stayed on the ground this time. “How did you do that?” I asked him.
     He smiled, something he rarely did. “I show you how to fight.”
     So he did. Judo and jujitsu, he called it, and he knew how to box, too—with his feet. Well, he had some strange Japanese word for it that I never could pronounce, but he translated it “kick boxing.” You box, and then when your opponent least expected it, you gave him a swift kick where it would do some good. It was plenty effective.
     For two years, at least three times a week, Kiko taught me how to fight. I got almost—almost—as good as he was, and indeed I could lick him about 4 times out of 10. We were both careful so neither of us ever got hurt, but I was very proud when he told me, “You could win championship in Japan.” Then he grinned. “Second place. After me.” I grabbed him and threw him. He laughed. “Very good. Surprise. Always surprise. Never do what opponent expects.”
     I had to try some of this stuff out, of course. So I did what Ma didn’t want me to do one Saturday and headed to the saloon in town. I figured if I couldn’t get into a fight there, I probably couldn’t get into one anywhere.
     I was about 20 then, so I was old enough to be there. And to know I shouldn’t be. Being Saturday night, it was crowded, it was rowdy, and it would probably erupt before long. Given I had a conscience instilled by my Ma—sometimes she could be aggravating—I decided I’d start something so I could get out of there pretty quick.
     I muscled up to the bar, pushing a couple of fellows out of the way—a couple of BIG fellows, and that was deliberate.
     “Hey, watch it, kid. You almost caused me to spill my drink.”
     “Aw, shut up,” I said. “I probably would have done you a favor since I doubt you can hold you liquor anyway.”
     The fellow inspected me quizzically. “What did you say?”
     I looked at him. He was a good three inches taller than me, probably 20 pounds heavier. Made no difference; remember I was a half foot taller than Kiko and bested him by 50 pounds. Balance, not weight, he had told me 1,000 times.
     I gave him a snide expression. “You’re as deaf as you are ugly. And dumb.”
     He was getting a little hot under the collar. “Boy, why don’t you go ahead and leave and I’ll forget you said that. Otherwise, I’m going to have to teach you a lesson.”
     I turned to him, and as sarcastically as I could, I said, “You couldn’t teach a baby how to burp.”
     That did it. His eyes got big and he exploded. “Why you little punk…” He led with his right. He never came within two feet of hitting me. He went flying across the room with a holler, landed on a table full of poker money and cards, stirred up a hornet’s nest by doing so, and the brawl was on. I fought for about 10 minutes, practicing everything Kiko taught me. It worked, too. When I had enough, I snuck out. The fight was still going on.
     Nobody ever said a word to me about starting that fracas.

     But a couple of years ago, things began to turn sour and the story was an old and common one—greed and power. Arn Cooper owned the biggest ranch in the Rio Plata and he wanted more. As in everybody else’s ranch, too. He tried to buy folks out—at ridiculous prices. He made my pa an offer for our section and Pa just laughed at him.
     “Cooper, don’t insult me. My family loves it here and we don’t want to move—at any price, much less one that’s about a tenth what our land is worth. Why can’t you just be satisfied with what you have? You’re the biggest rancher around, you have a lot of respect, the rest of us would be happy to work along with you and make this a good cattle county. There’s no call for this.”
     But, to Arn Cooper there was. Men become very unreasonable when money starts floating in front of them and Cooper had lost all sense of rationality. He convinced himself that the whole Rio Plata region belonged to him and that by even offering to pay pa and the other smaller ranches for their property, he was doing them a favor—even if his offers were, as pa said, insulting. To Cooper, it was his land anyway, so why should he pay any more for it than he wanted to?
     There were six other ranchers in the region that Cooper was trying to buy out, all of them with spreads about the size of ours. A few of them were frightened at what Cooper might do—especially when we began to see men in town (Rio Plata was the name of the town, too) who didn’t look a bit like ranch hands but were obviously on Cooper’s payroll. I asked one of them one time if he had a piggin string I could borrow and his answer was “What’s that?” That’s all I needed to know. The man was a hired gun, and he had about 10 helpers with him. It must have been costing Cooper a wad because those fellows don’t come cheap.
     The other six ranchers—Bates, Gilmore, Franklin, Causey, Ahrenhart, and Delay met at our place one evening to come up with some kind of strategy for defense.
     “Joshua,” Will Causey said to my pa, “Cooper’s hired him some gunmen now. Tom Dilotto and Peek Hanley are two of ‘em and those boys play for keeps. What are we going to do?”
     “We’re going to protect our land, Will. We’re going to fight for what’s ours because that’s what men do. I’ve got a fellow we can use to help us. He’ll be sort of a roving patrolman if you will. We’ll stop ‘em.”
     “Who’s your man, Joshua?” Gus Franklin asked. “And how much will he cost us? And will one be enough? Look how many Cooper has.”
     I remember Pa’s smile very well. “You fellows just let me know if you see anything suspicious around your property, as in Cooper might be up to something nasty. I’ll handle it from there.”
     The other men weren’t terribly thrilled with the idea; they wanted to know more, but Pa asked them to trust him, and they agreed to do it.
     And it almost worked.
     When the six ranchers left the meeting that night, Ma asked Pa, “Joshua, what do you have in mind? Have you hired your own gunman?” Ma wouldn’t have gone along with that at all.
     “Don’t have to, Ma.” He always called her that when I was around. “We’ve got the best gunman in the area in our own house.” And he smiled again.
     It took Ma and me a few seconds to figure out what he was saying. Then Ma exploded. “No! Joshua, I will not let you put that boy’s life at risk.”
     “Claire, look at him. He’s not a ‘boy’ any more. He’s a grown man. And he’s the best with a gun I’ve ever seen.” He looked at me. “Son, this land is going to be yours when your Ma and me pass on. Are you willing to fight for it now? ‘Cause if you ain’t, there’s no sense in me leavin’ it to you when I’m gone.”
     I was a little nonplussed, but there was no question what I was going to do. “Well, of course I’ll fight for it, Pa. What do you want me to do?”
     “Keep your guns loaded.”
     Ma continued her protest but to no avail. And she really didn’t put up that much of a fuss. It had to be done and she knew it. But she was my Ma and always would be which meant she’d always worry about me. That’s what mothers do.

     To Cooper and his men, I was just a young punk kid. They had no idea how good I was with a gun and so I posed no threat to them at all. So Pa stationed me in town a lot to keep my ears open. “If you see any of Cooper’s men in Rio Plata,” he told me, “you try to get as close as you can, as inconspicuously as you can, and see what you can find out.” Well, Ma didn’t like it, but I spent a lot of time in the local saloon—drinking sarsaparilla and playing poker. And listening for anything of interest. And the town grapevine suggested that Cooper was about to have his men burn Barry Gilmore out as a lesson and inducement to the other ranchers as to what would happen to them if they didn’t sell out. I didn’t know exactly what night they planned to hit the Gilmore place, so after scouting around a bit, I found a nice location on a small hill above the house and barn where I had a panoramic view of the whole ranch house area. And I was out of sight. I’d hear them and when I did…it would be like shooting ducks in a pond. Not that I ever did that….
     I didn’t have to wait long. The second night I was camped out above the Gilmore place, I heard the rumble of horses’ hooves and knew what was about to happen. It was dark, of course, but if you want to burn somebody out, you’ve got to have torches and such. So Cooper’s boys rode in hell bent for leather, and I put five horses on the ground before those outlaws got to within 100 yards of the house. I shot the horses rather than the men and always regretted it later. But those fellows turned and skedaddled and Barry Gilmore was left standing on his front porch in his pajamas scratching his head. He had no idea what had happened, either, though I reckoned he figured that Pa’s secret agent had been at work. Never got to talk to Gilmore about it.
     I was in Rio Plata the next day and there were some mighty feisty men there. And upset. Cooper was paying them good money and they didn’t like to fail any more than he wanted them to. I didn’t get any idea what they might be up to next, but the following day, Will Causey showed up at our ranch.
     “Joshua, my boy has spotted a couple of strangers riding on the edge of our land. I’m not sure what it means, but I’m a little worried about it.”
     Pa cast a quick glance at me and then gave an almost imperceptible nod. We both knew what it meant. Cooper’s men were reconnoitering. They weren’t about to let what happened at Gilmore’s happen again.
     Pa went with me this time. I got on top of the barn and he found a shallow ditch on the other side of the house and lay there. Causey never even knew we were there. Cooper’s men came from three directions, but that didn’t bother me or Pa any. I saw him point at two of the groups, indicating they were mine, and he took the third party. We actually had them in a pretty good crossfire. A few dead horses and a couple of wounded men later and they were hightailing off Causey’s land like the devil was after them. This was supposed to be easy for them but it wasn’t. Pa and I snuck off Causey’s land before he saw us.
     I wish I had been a fly on the wall at Cooper’s ranch house. These piddly little two-bit ranchers were defying him—and getting away with it. Well, we almost did get away with it. Cooper knew that Pa was the ringleader of the opposition so he finally tried to do what I would have done in the first place—kill Pa and the rest would scatter.
     And, unfortunately, he succeeded.
     Our big mistake was not thinking Cooper would hit during the day, that is, he’d only authorize night raids. But he changed his tactic. I went into town again a couple of days after the Causey raid and was a little surprised to see that none of Cooper’s men were there—there had always been a handful of them, mostly the gunmen, but not that day. It took me a few minutes too long to add two and two.
     I had Raven then and—no pun intended—he could fly. It was about five miles out to our ranch house and that horse made it in record time. But as I got near, I could see the smoke. Then I heard some rifle fire. By the time I got to the house, it was over. I saw Cooper’s men riding off. I pulled my rifle and nailed a couple of them—and I wasn’t aiming for horses, either. But that didn’t do Pa and Ma or our home any good. The ranch house was almost finished, as was the barn, and there were dead animals everywhere. I had no doubt that our cattle had met the same fate.
    I found Pa and Ma—and Kiko—between the house and barn, all of them shot full of holes. I wept for a solid hour, then buried them. I found the two men I had shot, put them on their horses, and rode into town with them, straight to the sheriff’s office.
     “Sheriff, you ever seen these two men before?”
     He was as crooked as a barrel full of snakes, so I wasn’t surprised to hear him say, ‘No, can’t rightly say I have.”
     “You’re a liar, sheriff,” I said to him. I was in absolutely no mood to be nice to anybody. “You know good and well that this scum is part of the crowd Arn Cooper hired to run the small ranchers out of the Rio Plata. They just burned us out and killed my father and mother. I nailed these two as they were trying to get away.” I looked him dead square in the eyes and he fidgeted. “Now, are you going to do something about it, or am I going to have to?”
     “Now, listen, son, I don’t rightly know these fellows were on Cooper’s payroll, and I’m sorry to hear about your ma and pa. I’ll do some investigating—“
     I never cursed but I had to bite my tongue not to do it that time. “Sheriff, by the time you get your pants pulled up, Cooper’s hired thugs will be 1,000 miles from here.” I mounted Raven. “I’ll leave a few more dead bodies for you at Cooper’s place.”
     That riled the sheriff some. “Now, boy, don’t you go over there. You’ll get yourself killed sure as shootin’. This is a matter for the law.”
     I looked at him with contempt. “Then why hasn’t the law done something to stop Arn Cooper?”
     “He hasn’t done anything wrong. Anything you can prove, that is.”
     Technically, he was right. Morally, he was wrong. I wasn’t going to win in a court of law. So I’d take the law into my own hands. “See you around, sheriff. No, come to think of it, you probably won’t.”
     I rode off towards the Cooper ranch. I actually had two gun belts—one that holstered only one gun, the other a two-gun outfit. I wore the two-gun belt now. That gave me twelve bullets. Plus 15 in my Winchester. I hoped to use them all, and then some.
     I rode straight up to the Cooper house. There were about seven or eight men standing around the front porch, drinking beer and laughing. Arn Cooper was one of them. They stopped drinking and laughing when I pulled up.
     “Well, you did it, Cooper. You killed my ma and pa and burned us out. Unfortunately for you, you aren’t going to live to tell your grandkids about it.”
     He snorted. “Kid, go home. I don’t know what you’re talking about. If your ma and pa are dead, I’m sorry to hear it. I had nothing to do with it.”
     “Oh, yes you did. Incidentally, the sheriff has the two that didn’t make it back. Not that that should bother you. It will simply be that much less you’ll have to shell out to these murdering sons of whores.”
     His eyes narrowed and the other men with him began turning and facing me. They were a rough looking, dangerous bunch, that’s for sure. But I didn’t care.
     “Kid, I told you, get on home. Or wherever you need to git now. There’s eight of us here. Surely you don’t think you can get all of us. And probably none of us. I’d hate for a young fellow like you, with all your life ahead of you, to end it here and now.”
     I dismounted and stood about 30 feet from them. “Yeah, Cooper, you’re right. There’s eight of you and, chances are, I’ll get plugged, too.” My eyes bore into his and he couldn’t hold contact. “But, Cooper, you’ll never know if they do or not because my first bullet is going straight into your heart.”
     And I meant what I said. Those eight men apparently thought the conversation was going to continue or that I would back down. What they didn’t expect was for me to draw both guns and start shooting. I had six of them on the ground before any of them could even pull a gun. And the other two froze, wide-eyed and…scared.
     “Holy Moses, I’ve never seen anything like that,” one of them muttered.
     The shooting brought a few more men—and Cooper’s wife—to the front of the house. I ejected my spent shells and reloaded my two guns. Arn Cooper’s wife was staring from me to her husband—who was dead on the front porch—then back to me again. Several of Cooper’s cowhands had gathered round, too, and were looking at me, none too friendly.
     But, I simply mounted Raven and looked at Mrs. Cooper. “Ma’am, I’m sorry for what I just did. Well, for your sake. But your husband just killed my father and mother, all our livestock, and burnt our ranch to the ground. Men like that have no business on the face of this earth.”
     She was looking at me, searching my face. She was twice my age and had obviously once been a pretty woman. But 20 years of living with Arn Cooper had taken its toll.
     She sighed. “He was not a good man, no. I tried to tell him that what he was doing was wrong, but he wouldn’t listen. He lost all sense of reason and proportion the last two years. He was obsessed with having this whole valley.” Some tears came to her eyes, but she smiled. “I’m very sorry to hear about your parents. Joshua and Claire Landers were as fine a people as I’ve ever known and they raised a good son.”
     I had to fight back tears, too. “Thank you, ma’am. The ranch is yours now, I suppose, and you can have ours—mine, too—but I’m going to get what it’s worth from you.”
     She nodded. “I don’t know what I’ll do yet.”
     I looked around and spotted Reggie Planters, Cooper’s foreman. He was a good man. “Reggie, take care of her.”
     He started to say something, but stopped. He just nodded his head.
     I turned and rode back to town.

     Barbara Cooper—Arn’s wife—might not have held me guilty of killing her husband, but the law would. I killed eight men, and even if she testified in my behalf, I was looking at a long jail sentence at best because I took the law into my own hands. So I obviously couldn’t stay in Rio Plata. Didn’t want to now anyway. But Arn Cooper owed me, and I intended to get payment in more than just blood.
     As I rode back to Rio Plata, I did some figuring and came to the conclusion that our ranch was worth about $15,000. So, when I got to town, I stopped at the bank.
     “I’d like to see Mr. Flowers,” I told the teller at the window. “It’s about a big withdrawal.” Glen Flowers was the bank manager.
     “Ok,” the clerk said. He pointed. “He’s in his office, right over there.”
     I knocked on Flowers’ door and, when invited, entered the room. He stood up. “Yes. Joshua Landers’ son, correct?”
     “Yes. My name is Hannibal. I’d like to make a withdrawal.”
     He looked a little puzzled. “Well, my teller should be able to handle that…”
     “No, not this time. Arn Cooper just killed my father and mother and destroyed our ranch. I want to close our account and withdraw $15,000 from the Cooper account in payment for our ranch.”
     He didn’t quite know what to say. “He killed—?”
     “Yes, “ I interrupted, and then pulled a gun. “Mr. Flowers, this is not a request. I don’t want anything but what is mine and what is owed me. Whatever is in the Landers account is mine now. I figure our ranch to be worth $15,000. Cooper is going to pay for it.”
     “Well, I don’t think Mr. Cooper—“
     Again I interrupted. “Arn Cooper will never be in this bank again.”
     He stared at me, especially after he got my meaning. “Mr. Landers, this is not legal.” I wonder how he figured that out….
     "No, but it’s justice. Now, how much is in—my account? And the rest from Cooper’s.”
     He looked at my gun. “You wouldn’t use that.”
     “I’ve already killed eight men today, Mr. Flowers. I don’t want to make it nine.” I was bluffing, but he didn’t know that. I wouldn’t have killed him, but I might have shot his ear off. Both of them, if he proved real obstinate.
     But he didn’t. He hemmed and hawed a minute until I cocked the gun and then we went back to the safe together. I saw him give his teller a quick nod, and then a few moments later, the fellow disappeared. Going after the sheriff, I assumed.
     I sighed. “I wish you hadn’t done that, Mr. Flowers.” I bopped him on the head with my gun and he shriveled to the floor. I took a minute to count out $16,133—$15,000 for the ranch and $1,133 in our account—put it in a sack, and headed for the front door.
     The sheriff entered when I was about 15 feet from the door. “Hold it right there, Landers. You’re under arrest.” He had his gun pointed at me.
     “For what?” I said. “All I did was withdraw all the money from my personal account and the $15,000 Barbara Cooper owes me for my ranch, which she now owns. She agreed to it.” Sort of.
     “Barbara?” he asked, a little perplexed.
     “Yeah. Arn wasn’t there to make the decision. Hard to make them from hell.”
     It took him a moment to catch my meaning, but by then it was too late. I had my pistol back in my hand. I fired twice, once knocking the gun out of his hand, and a second time hitting him in the shoulder. I didn’t really have to do the latter, but I hated crooked lawmen.
     “Don’t pursue me, sheriff. You won’t find me.”
     I pushed past him, tied the money bag onto my saddle, mounted up, and left Rio Plata.

Chapter Four—Hannibal Landers, Number Two

     Frankly, I was a little surprised that people as far north as I now was—back to Pine Valley—had heard of me. The goings-on in New Mexico were a little peculiar, but I didn’t think they were so out of the ordinary as to create a reputation all over the West. But apparently such had happened. And, as noted, I had been using aliases ever since I left New Mexico, just in case. I had wandered around for over year, bouncing from place to place, not sure what I wanted to do, mainly avoiding lawmen. I heard my name mentioned a couple of times, which pleased me none too well, but I hoped the whole thing would eventually blow over. But apparently, the saga of Hannibal Landers had grown with the telling, for now I had “kilt half of New Mexico and eight or nine men since then,” both of which were far from the truth. Davey Gordon was the only other man I had killed since leaving home, but from all indications, nobody knew that it was Hannibal Landers who had done that deed. To be honest, I was sick of killing—I never wanted to do it in the first place; spiders and snakes were enough for me. But I did what I thought I had to do in New Mexico, and Gordon forced my hand. Hopefully, it would be the last time.
     And with that hope in mind, I took off my gun in Pine Valley, which is why Caroline saw me without it. I still had both holsters—the one gun and two gun belts—with two pistols and a rifle. The pistols and the money I’d taken from the bank were in my saddle bags or in various money belts on my person. I kept a couple wrapped around my ankles inside my boots. I was getting tired of drifting and truly hoped that, if I came far enough north, nobody would have heard of me. That obviously was a hope deferred.
     But again, there was no way I could leave Pine Valley now, not with a man coming who was using my name and very likely would further tarnish my reputation. In fact, I figured it might have been that fellow who had added the extra “eight or nine men” since New Mexico to the list of my grave plottings. That guy had to be stopped, one way or another, and I wasn’t going to count on Benny Freitus to do it.
     But then…if Freitus did kill “Hannibal Landers,” that would free me entirely. I could decide what name I wanted to use for the rest of my life and not have to worry about the law chasing me any more. That didn’t exactly put a good taste in my mouth. My name was Hannibal Landers, I was proud of it, and I wanted to use it. At the moment, however, I couldn’t see any way to do it. So I’d remain “Frank Pierce” in Pine Valley, and if I moved on, I’d probably use another alias. I’d never been “Tom Jefferson,” but I’d run out of Presidents eventually.
     All of this stuff was going through my head as I ate my meal at Wiggly’s and then left. My mind was still in a whirl as I walked down the boardwalk towards the hotel, so I didn’t see the two fellows who were coming the other way. So naturally I bumped into them. And just as naturally, they were the kind to take offense.
     “Oh, excuse me,” I said, rather idly, and made to pass on, thinking it a small matter.
     But I was dealing with a couple of young toughs who liked to parade that toughness every chance they got. The red-headed fellow with a face full of freckles said, “Hey, watch where you’re going, mister,” and gave me a hard shove into his companion, a blond haired freak with his two front teeth missing and a nose that had obviously been broken recently in the past.
     Missing Teeth grabbed me and hurled me a few feet down the boardwalk. I stumbled, but kept my feet, and then looked at them. “Ok, fellows, I’m sorry, all right? It was an accident. No sense in making a scene out of it.”
     But they wanted to. They both came up to me, sensing that maybe I was an easy touch. Freckles stood in front of me with a confident, surly expression on his face, and said, “Well, maybe it wasn’t an accident. Seems to me like maybe you was spoiling for a fight.”
     “Oh, good grief,” I said, and threw up my hands in disgust. “I’m not looking for a fight, ok? I just wasn’t paying very close attention to where I was going at the moment and bumped into you fellows. I meant no harm. Let it go.”
     Freckles turned his head and spat. “How much is it worth to ya?”
     “Huh?” I looked at him, puzzled.
     “Give each of us, say, 20 bucks, and we’ll let it slide. This time.”
     This was ridiculous, of course. I could have wiped the street with these two yahoos in five seconds, but that was the very thing I was trying to avoid—calling attention to myself. And I was willing to go a long way to avoid doing that. “All right,” I said. “I’ll keep the peace,” and started to reach for my wallet.
     Fortunately, about that time, the sheriff came over. “What’s going on here?” A small crowd had also gathered, thinking they might see a good fight.
     Since Freckles and Missing Teeth weren’t too quick with their brains, I spoke first. “Sheriff, I accidentally bumped into these fellows on the boardwalk. I apologized, but they want to make trouble out of it. I’d appreciate you shooing them off so I can go about my business.”
     “That’s not what happened, sheriff!” Freckles said. “This sidewinder deliberately rammed us and we was gonna make him pay.”
     The sheriff looked skeptical. “Well, deliberate or not, Harley, he apologized. Now you and Hank get on home. I don’t want any trouble here today.”
     Harley—Freckles—grumbled and looked at me. “You owe us 20 bucks apiece, mister, and you’re gonna pay, one way or another, some time.” I just sighed and shook my head.
     “Get outta here, Myers,” the sheriff said, and Harley and Hank moved on, still grumbling.
     I glanced at the lawman. “Thanks, sheriff. I’m not looking for trouble.”
     He examined me. “You’re new here.”
     “Yeah. Just passing through. Staying at the hotel for a few days. Name’s Frank Pierce. You can check it out.”
     “I’ll do that.” He gave me one more close inspection and said, “We’ve got a few rotten apples in Pine Valley now, like the Myers. Try to watch where you’re going.”
     I nodded. “Sure thing, sheriff.”
     He walked away and the crowd started breaking up, disappointed that they weren’t going to see a good scrap. I happened to see Caroline standing near the back of the crowd. She was looking at me, and I could see disappointment like it was written in bold letters across her forehead. Then she turned and started to move off.
     “Nice earrings,” I said, just loud enough for her to hear, and with some obvious sarcasm. I didn’t wait to see if she turned and looked back or not. I headed for the barber shop I’d seen to get a haircut and a bath.

     Caroline was indeed disappointed and she wasn’t exactly sure why. She had seen almost the whole thing. Well, she didn’t see him—he said his name is Frank Pierce—bump into the Myers brothers, but she saw the rest—Harley push him, Hank toss him, and then the challenge, the demand for $40, and the obvious intent he had of giving it to them. He didn’t stand up to Billy and he didn’t stand up to the Myers. But his eyes…did I misread him that badly? When she and he looked at each other when it was over, Caroline thought she read disgust in his face. At her? What does he see in mine? She turned away, but heard the sarcastic remark about “nice earrings.” She looked back, but he was already headed in the other direction. She bit her lower lip and watched him a moment, then slowly walked away. She shook it off and her mind shifted gears. I need to get home. Then she thought of what Betty Anderson had told her—that her father had hired a gunman, and she knew that was a major reason she was upset. Hannibal Landers. Oh, he’s a murderer! How could father hire such a man as that?…

     I did all that I wanted to do at the barber’s and felt almost new when I left the place—I’d had him get my clothes laundered, too. It was mid-afternoon, and I didn’t have anyplace special to be any time soon—pardon the understatement—so I walked the streets of Pine Valley for a while. There were a lot of different businesses—I saw a ladies’ clothing store and one for men, a grocery store, a general store, a pharmacy with a doctor’s office above it, a lawyer’s office, a land agency, book store, two more restaurants, etc. etc. and then I happened upon the northwest district where the saloons, dance halls, and whorehouses were. I did an abrupt U-turn because Ma was back on my shoulder, but then heard a roar coming from one of the saloons across the street and two men came flying out backwards and landed in the street. A moment later, Billy Williams, Caroline’s beau—at least that’s how I thought of him—came storming out of the place. He picked the two men up off the ground, butted their heads together, and proceeded to pound each of them into utter insensibility. It was brutal and I thought he was going to kill them. But he didn’t. He just left them on the ground as bloody pulps.
     “If I ever see either of you two again, I’ll twist you into th’ ground, head first,” Billy shouted at them, though neither one of them could hear him since they were both unconscious. He cursed them a few more times, gave each of them one last kick, and then looked up and saw me. I was still across the street. He snarled at me, but I held up my hands in a surrendering gesture, and he just spat, then turned and went back into the saloon. I watched him with a thoughtful expression on my face.
     “He got somethin’ agin you, mister?” I heard somebody say, and I turned and saw an old man watching me.
     I gave him a whimsical smile. “Yeah. I made the mistake of saying hello to his girl.”
     He grunted. “Don’t do that again. Billy Williams is plumb poison mean, and he can lick any five men in town all at the same time. You saw what he just done to those two fellers, and them boys is fightin’ mean theirselves. If’n yore on Billy’s bad list, you’d be wise to stay outta his way. ‘Specially since you ain’t packin’ no armor.” He meant that I wasn’t wearing a gun.
     I nodded and looked back at the saloon. “I’ll do that. Thanks.” After another moment’s reflection, I just shook my head and headed back to the safer districts of Pine Valley.
     If “Hannibal Landers” hadn’t been on his way to Pine Valley to be Art Barker’s hired killer, I would have left the place the next day.
     But…I had to stay.

     Wiggly’s was close enough to the hotel that I decided to eat supper there as well. I arrived a little after 6, and it was pretty crowded again, but I did get a table this time, in the back. I sat facing the front entrance, just so I could see who came in. There was a window behind me in case Billy Williams showed up and wanted to throw me through it.
     Billy didn’t come, but halfway through my fried chicken meal—and the old timer had been right, the chicken was better than the steak—a big man entered the restaurant who looked like he thought he owned the place. Carried himself with authority. He was older, maybe late 40s, but built like a rock. He had narrow eyes, a square chin, thin lips, and rugged complexion. Tough looking dude, but not an outlaw. I know them when I see them.
     “Howdy, Art,” somebody hollered, and my eyebrows shot up. This must be Art Barker of Rocking AT fame—the fellow who had hired…Hannibal Landers.
     He didn’t respond to the greeting. “Anybody seen Hannibal Landers in town?”
     Somebody else spoke up. “Wouldn’t rightly know him if we seen him, Art. Got a description of him?”
     “Yeah, medium height, dark hair, blue eyes, ugly.” Well, that was pretty close, especially the ugly part.
     “Lots of men fit that description, Art.”
     Barker threw the fellow a withering glance. “Well, I’m sure he’ll make himself known when he gets here. Tell him to head out to my place pronto.” Then he looked around the room. “Anybody here who wants to try and bust a bronc? I got one that refuses to break. He’s tossed my best riders and broken two of their legs. I’m going to shoot him if he throws the next fellow. Ten dollars for the man who can tame him.”
     “You wouldn’t be talkin’ about Diablo, would you, Art?”
     “That’s the critter.”
     “No, thanks.”
     I whispered to the fellow at the table next to mine: “Who’s Diablo?”
     “He’s the horse Barker’s talking about. Everybody knows he’s the orneriest, meanest caballo this side of Mexico. Nobody can break him. I guess Barker’s tired of trying.”
     Barker spoke up again. “Nobody want to try?”
     “I’ll do it.” That was me. I’d broken lots of horses for Pa before, including Raven, and he was as wild as they came.
     Barker looked at me. “Who are you?”
     “Pierce,” I said. “Got into town today. Just passing through, but my horse is tired and thought I might hole up for a few days. Whorehouses and bars don’t appeal to me so I’ve got some time on my hands. I’ll take a shot at breakin’ that outlaw for you.”
     He nodded. “All right. Ten bucks if you can do it.”
     “No, that’s not enough,” I said.
     He looked at me quizzically. “Then how much?”
     I looked him up and down. There was no sound in that diner now. Everybody was looking at me. “I want the horse,” I said.
     Barker’s eyes narrowed and he started to say something, but I interrupted. “He’s not doing you any good unbroken and you apparently haven’t got anybody who can break him. I tame him, he’s mine.”
     He shook his head. “You don’t look like the type that can break a horse like Diablo.”
     I smiled at him. “You wanna bet?”
     He actually smiled back, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “The horse?”
     Still smiling, I just nodded my head.
     “And if you don’t break him? What’s your end of the bet?”
     “I’ll provide the bullet for you to shoot him with.”
     Barker laughed. “All right, you’ve got a deal. You be out at my place at 9 AM tomorrow and I’ll watch Diablo stomp you into the dirt.” He told me how to get to his ranch.
     “I’ll be there. I want a new saddle, too.”
     "That's not much of an even bet, Pierce."
     "Would you rather shoot the horse?"
     I could tell by his eyes that "no," he didn't want to do that.  No rancher ever wants to shoot a horse, regardless of how ornery the critter is, and a well-to-do horse man, like Barker, would be willing to pay almost any price not to kill one.  I knew that because we had run horses on our ranch in New Mexico. 
     But Barker only laughed again, and said, “Cocky tinhorn, aren’t you.”
     I nodded, but somebody else spoke up.
     “Art, you’re wasting your time. The man is a first rate coward. He won’t even show up.”
     Barker looked at the fellow who had spoken. “You want to explain that?”
     The man had seen my…confrontation…with the Myers brothers that day. “He wouldn’t fight his own mother. Was going to give each of ‘em 20 bucks to save his hide.” Heads turned towards me and there were a lot of scornful looks.
     Barker said to me, “Is that true?”
     I shrugged. “I try to avoid trouble when possible.”
     “He’s sich a cow’rd he ain’t even wearin’ a gun.”
     I made a disgusted sound. “Mr. Barker, that doesn’t mean I can’t break a horse.”
     He scrutinized me closely. “I don’t like cowards.”
     “What do you care what I am if I can break that horse of yours?”
     “Then why did you back down to the Myers?”
     “I told you. I avoid trouble if I can.”
     He looked skeptical, but he said, “Be at my ranch at 9.” And he left.
     Everybody was looking at me now. I paid no mind. I finished my chicken, tossed a few coins on the table, and started to leave.
     “You’ll never break that horse, stranger,” somebody said to my back.
     I turned and smiled again. “You wanna bet? I’ll take your horse, too,” and that actually got a few laughs.

     Caroline, because she was the only female left in the Barker family, did most of the household work, like cooking and cleaning. She fed the chickens and dogs, too, but left most everything else up to her father and uncle Rafe—and their hired hands, of course. She liked to ride, and had a good horse named Butter, because that was her color. Caroline had to admit that Butter was ugly, but she was a dandy steed. Her father had given her to Caroline for her 21st birthday the year before, and he wouldn’t have given his only daughter a rogue. Art doted on Caroline, but he was pretty strict with her, too. A little too much so now, Caroline thought, but she put up with it because he’d always been that way, and she was his only child.
    Usually her father, uncle, and the ranch foreman, Trace Newsome, ate breakfast together in the dining room of the ranch house, mainly so they could discuss the day’s business. And that was true today. Caroline was still a little upset about the news she’d heard yesterday and, since she hadn’t had a chance the previous evening, decided to confront her father with it now.
     She had everything on the table—eggs, biscuits, sausage, gravy, and coffee—and the men were digging in. Caroline spoke up. “Father, I heard yesterday that you had hired Hannibal Landers.”
     Her father paused just a moment with the fork on his way to his mouth, then he took the bite, chewed a moment, and said, “It’s none of your concern, Caroline.”
     Caroline was pretty mild-mannered, but she could be aroused. “Yes, it is, too, Father. I live on this ranch, too, and having an outlaw and a murderer like that here is frightening. And it’s wrong. You know Mother would never approve of such.” Caroline’s mother had been a saint, but had died 10 years ago. Her daughter still missed her, and Art did, too.
     And he winced. “Caroline, don’t you be bringing your mother into this. I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. Ridenour has hired a man and I have to protect my property as well. It’s just the way it is.”
     “You’re going to get killed, is what you’re going to do,” Caroline said hotly. “And a lot of other good men, too. Why can’t you talk to Mr. Ridenour? You two used to be the best of friends.”
     Her uncle Rafe and the foreman, Newsome, hadn’t raised an eyeball during this exchange, but were conspicuously stuffing food into their mouths. Art put his fork down and stared at his daughter. “Giles Ridenous is a thief, a liar, a swindler, a deceiver, and would rob a widow of her inheritance. I’ve tried to talk to him, but he’s beyond reason. He’s bringing this on. He hired his man first. What do you expect me to do, sit here and let him run roughshod over me? Girl, I’m protecting this land for you. Maybe a show of appreciation would be more appropriate.”
     Caroline didn’t back down. “There’s got to be a better way than hiring murderers and gunmen.”
     “You tell me what it is.”
     Caroline groped. “Can’t you get the sheriff involved? Isn’t he supposed to uphold the law? Prevent this sort of thing?”
     “How much confidence do you have in Chet Miller?”
     Caroline closed her eyes and dropped her head. She knew what her father meant. Chet Miller was a good man, but he was way out of his league on this one. And besides, he couldn’t do anything until somebody broke the law. Which nobody had yet. “There’s just got to be a better way, Father. There has to be.”
     Art Barker went back to eating. “Well, if you figure out what it is, you let me know. Otherwise, stay out of it. This is a man’s job and me and my boys will handle it.”
     Caroline knew it was useless to argue any further, so she just sighed and went back into the kitchen. The men started discussing the day’s needs; Caroline could hear them, but wasn’t paying much attention until she heard her father say, “Oh, Trace, I’ve got a fellow coming out about 9 who’s going to try to break Diablo. Name of Pierce. Told him I’d give him $10 if he could do it, but he made me bet the horse. So if he breaks him, let him have him. A new saddle, too.”
     “He’ll never do it,” Trace said.
     “Well, he’s a cocky so and so, I’ll say that for him, so we’ll give him a chance. It’ll make him eat a piece of humble pie, that’s for sure,” and the three men laughed.
     When Caroline heard the name “Pierce,” she froze. Is that Frank? Then, a little aggravated at herself, she thought What do I care? He’s just a spineless worm. Diablo will probably kill him. That thought frightened her a little. Why would Frank even try? Does he need money that badly? But he wants the horse? To sell? Probably. But he said he wanted to buy some land. He must have money…She sighed again, and wondered why she was even thinking about it. But, in her head, she still saw his eyes, and she just couldn’t believe he was what she saw yesterday—a man with no courage, a man who backed down twice, a man who was prepared to humiliate himself by buying off the Myers brothers.
     And then she knew. She just knew. He’ll break Diablo

     I arrived at the Rocking AT a little before 9. And received a shock of my own. I saw Caroline at the side of the house, feeding chickens. I gave her a quizzical look and she gave me what appeared to be an embarrassed smile.
     “I live here, too,” she said.
     “You’re a Barker?”
     Art Barker came out of the house and heard the exchange. “You two know each other?”
     Caroline explained. Art’s countenance towards me didn’t improve. “You backed down to Billy Williams, too. Is there anything you’ll fight for?”
     Mister, if you only knew…I didn’t bother responding. “Where’s the horse you want broken?”
     He motioned with his head. “Over in the corral.” He headed that way. I started to follow.
     I turned. It was Caroline. Her eyes were searching mine. “Be careful,” she said.
     I didn’t smile at her. I simply said, “Nice earrings.” I saw her wince and turn away. I followed Barker. I didn’t know why I was being mean to her, I guess because I didn’t like Billy Williams and apparently she did. If she hasn’t got any more sense than that, then why should I give her any respect? At least that’s how I rationalized my conduct towards her.
     Trace Newsome was standing at the corral gate. He held out his hand. “Newsome,” he said, and I shook and introduced myself. The foreman was a tall, thin fellow with dirty blond hair, sallow eyes, and a droopy mustache that covered his upper lip. Probably about 30. But he looked competent.
     “You really think you can bust that outlaw?” he asked me.
     I gave him half a grin. “Worth a shot.”
     “He’s liable to kill you.”
     “He won’t be the first horse that’s tried.”
     Newsome shrugged. “Your hide. There he is,” and pointed.
     I looked at Diablo, studying him for several moments. It was a beautiful horse, a bay gelding, powerful but sleek, light brown with four white stockings. He was prancing and jostling around the corral, tossing his head, whinnying. It was like he knew somebody was going to test him again—and that he—Diablo—would win again. Nobody can break me, was the horse’s whole demeanor.
     Well, it took four of Barker’s men to get that horse ready for me to mount him. They were holding him, had him saddled with blinders on. I had a feeling Diablo wasn’t fooled, he knew what was about to happen and couldn’t wait for the challenge to begin. Before I mounted him, however, I walked up to him and whispered something in his ear. I could see the horse shiver. I climbed on his back and took the reins. I glanced around. At least 20 men were leaning on the corral railing, watching. And I saw Caroline. She had a very worried expression on her face and was biting her lower lip. I thought I’d be nice, so I smiled at her this time and lipped “nice earrings.” If a person could smile and frown at the same time, that’s the response she gave me.
     Before Trace let Diablo loose, he asked me, “What did you say to him?” meaning, what had I whispered in the horse’s ear.
     I just smiled. “Let him go, Trace, and get out of the way.”
     “Good luck.” The foreman removed the blinders and ran. Diablo immediately threw a fit.
     I’ll admit, that horse was the worst bucker I’d ever seen. I think he turned two or three flips, and jumped over a few clouds. He could bounce and twist one way, and then when he hit the ground, immediately bounce and twist in the exact opposite direction. He almost threw me once doing that, but I caught his pattern. But he was no dummy. He did the bounce and twist to his right, and then when I expected him to immediately bounce and twist left, he did a B and T to the right again. And I went flying.
     I hit the ground hard, but it didn’t hurt. Much. Diablo was running around the corral, tossing his head, laughing at me. I looked over at Newsome.
     “Get him,” I said. “I know what he’s doing now.”
     Trace’s eyebrows shot up, but he said, “Ok. But we ain’t payin’ for your funeral.”
     Before getting back into the saddle, I whispered in Diablo’s ear again. I shot a glance at Caroline. She wasn’t looking at me; she was talking to some cowboy.
     Newsome let Diablo go, and the horse took off again. I was a little bit weary of this stubborn mule, so every time he went up, I pounded a fist between his ears. That made him madder, but I just pounded all the harder. He bucked and bucked but I wouldn’t turn loose. Finally, I shouted, “Open the gate! He’s coming through!” And sure enough, Diablo headed in that direction. Barker’s men barely got the gate open before the horse burst through it like he’d been shot out of a cannon.
     And, man, that horse could run. He took off down the trail and he didn’t slow down until I thought he would drop dead. He was faster than any horse I’d ever ridden—or seen ridden—and that included Raven. Diablo finally stopped near a stream, panting and soaked with sweat, so I dismounted and led him to the water. He didn’t fight me at all. While he was drinking, I removed the saddle and blanket, grabbed a handful of grass, and gave him a good rubdown. He liked that. The bits of apple I put to his lips didn’t disagree with him, either. He nuzzled me and I knew I had a new friend. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with him yet, though. I certainly wasn’t going to sell Raven. Well, having two of the best horses in the country wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
     We rode back to Barker’s ranch and Diablo was still feisty but under control. Everybody was watching me as I turned him loose in the corral. He rolled in the dirt for a moment, then came over and nuzzled my shirt pocket. I knew what he wanted so I pulled out another piece of apple and gave it to him. He stood there and let me rub his nose.
     Barker’s men were still standing around. “Never thought I’d see that,” one of them said.
     Barker said, “I was ready to kill him.”
     “What did you do to him?”
     General comments like that.
     Trace Newsome asked me, “What did you whisper to him before you mounted him?”
     I grinned at him. “I told him that, if he threw me, I’d beat his head in. He didn’t believe me the first time, but he did the second.”
     He laughed. “Well, it worked. He’s sure taken to you.”
     I spoke to Art Barker. “My horse now, right?”
     He nodded. “A deal’s a deal.” Then he shook his head. “I don’t understand. What you just did took more guts…why did you back down to Williams and the Myers boys yesterday? Something doesn’t fit here.”
     I looked at him for a few moments. “It’s a long story, Mr. Barker. I don’t need to go into it now.”
     He returned my gaze for several seconds, and nodded. “I’m sure you’ve got your reasons. You want a job?”
     I threw a quick glance at Caroline. She was looking at me, but I couldn’t read her face. I looked back at her father. “No, not at the moment. Thanks.”
     “All right. But you’ve got one any time you want it.”
     Right then we heard somebody yell, “Hello, the house,” and we all turned and saw a lone rider heading up the trail. He pulled up and eyeballed everybody. I’d seen a few human rattlesnakes in my day, and this fellow was the king cobra, if you’ll pardon me mixing vermin. Tall, lean but sturdy, mid-20s probably, narrow brown eyes, dark blond hair under a black, flat crowned hat. Blue shirt, Levis, gun on his hip, tied down low. Arrogance oozed out of this fellow. He was handsome and he knew it, but he was a lot more than that, and he knew that, too. His eyes rested on Caroline for a couple of seconds too long, and I glanced at her. She was staring at him, her eyes big, and it looked like she was barely breathing. Finally, the man said, “Art Barker here?”
     Art spoke up. “I’m Barker. Who are you?”
     The horseman pushed his hat back on his head, and gave a small smile that came nowhere near his eyes.
     “My name,” he said, “is Hannibal Landers.”

     Caroline didn’t realize, till she saw Frank’s surprise, that he hadn’t known her last name. She didn’t especially like the way he was looking at her; not lustful, by any means, in fact, just the opposite. A little bit cold. And when he said “nice earrings” and headed for the corral, she figured he probably hated her guts. It didn’t really take her long to figure out why. He probably thinks I AM Billy’s “woman” and that my “man” humiliated him yesterday. He probably doesn’t think I have much respect for him…and I saw him with the Myers brothers, too. She thought a moment. DO I have respect for him? She shook her head. Frank Pierce was an enigma. His eyes and his actions just didn’t seem to conform to each other.
     And then, sitting on Diablo, he smiled and mouthed “nice earrings” again. What was THAT all about? Caroline had smiled back, but was getting a little frustrated with the man. Well, he’ll probably leave Pine Valley before long and that’s well and good.
     Then…that other man rode up. He looks dangerous, too, but in a different sort of way. Her eyes locked with his for a moment. She was repulsed…yet fascinated. He’s…handsome…and he knows it…
     But then he said his name. Caroline gasped. He’s Hannibal Landers. The filthy swine…Her eyes blazed, and she muttered, “Murderer,” and then walked resolutely towards the ranch house.
     I think I’ll marry Billy after all. He’s got his faults, but he’s easy to understand. When she got to the front porch, though, she glanced back briefly. Nobody was looking at her, they were all talking to Landers. She looked at Pierce, then at Landers, then she went into the house. If those two tangled, I wonder who would win…
     And then a thought shot through her mind that caused her to tremble—and agonize—at her own feelings. And if I had to choose between the two, which one would it be?…Oh, Caroline, how can you think such a thing?…Then she sighed because she knew why. Billy Williams….

     I tried to mask my feelings when I heard the man say his name. And I had to bite my tongue to keep from shouting, “You’re a liar.” But I took my gaze off of him as if it really wasn’t any of my business and petted Diablo some more.
     “Landers”—what do I call him? The Fraud, I guess—anyway, he heard what Caroline said about him and then watched her storm off for a moment, then turned back to Barker with a wry grin. “Doesn’t like me, I guess.”
     “She has a problem with…men of your profession,” Barker said, “but she’ll give you no trouble. Glad you made it.” He spoke to his foreman. “Trace, take care of his horse.” Then to The Fraud. “Get cleaned up and come on into the house. I’ll have Caroline heat up the coffee and we’ll go to my office and I’ll fill you in on what’s going on.”
     “Sounds good to me,” The Fraud said, and he dismounted.
     I spoke. “Mr. Barker, if you don’t need me any more, I think I’ll head on back to town.”
     He nodded. “Ok. That offer of a job stands any time you want it.”
     “Thanks.” I was starting to do a slow boil. The Fraud. Using my name. Everybody thinking he was me. And Caroline thinking I—Hannibal Landers—was a murderer.
     I’m not sure why I cared what she thought about me. But I did. And all the way back to Pine Valley, it was hard to get out of my mind—she thinks I’m a murderer…