The clock on the restaurant wall said we still had a bit of time before the gunfight. Something had been bothering me, though. Bothering me a lot.
“Tam,” I said, “I got a question.”
He looked up from his steak and mashed potatoes long enough to swallow. “Hm?”
“Andy Clay ain’t no Wild Bill Hickok, would you agree?”
The tale teller drained his coffee cup and signaled the waiter fer a refill while he considered. “No, I don’t reckon he comes close to Hickok. None of his shootouts have been particularly notable, at least so far as I’ve heard.”
“And he’s a backshooter.”
“So they say. Nobody’s ever proved it, but odds are, yeah. You’ve got something in mind, Dawson?”
“You might say. Here we have a not so renowned shootist riding in to call out another man–whose name we still don’t know, but apparently somebody with cojones enough he ain’t running. Clay is doing this, not out where he might be able to drygulch the fellow, but in broad daylight in a town that don’t cotton to such doings on their civilized streets.
“In other words, he’s setting up a spectacle right here in Waco, with every badge packer out of town but the newshawks bound to be paying attention. My question to you–my real question; that first one don’t count–is, what does this entire arrangement suggest to you?”
As he often did, my partner jist turned my question right back at me. “What’s it mean to you?”
“Setup,” I murmered, way too soft fer anybody but the two of us to hear. “Setup all the way.”
There wasn’t much discussion. Neither Tam nor I had any use fer backshooters; that we’d decide to take a hand in this business after all–instead of remaining mere spectators–was most likely a foregone conclusion from the git-go. When I volunteered to keep an eye on the Longhorn, he simply pointed out what I knew already.
“You’re choosing the tougher half of this old boot, cowboy. At noon around here, the sun still throws a little shade in front of Callie’s, but it’ll be bouncing off the Longhorn right in your eyes. That whole front will be washed out; you’ll be lucky if you can read the Longhorn sign or find the front door. Any backup shooter Clay’s got ensconced in one of them rooms will be plumb invisible to you unless he’s dumb enough to stick a rifle barrel out the window fer all to see.”
“You’re overstating the case. Oh, and by the way, this is no time to git me thinking about a dictionary by using one of them big words like ensconced, all right?”
“All right. Jist don’t go blaming yourself iffen our man gits gunned down ’cause you couldn’t take a chance on popping an innocent bystander who jist opened his window to watch the show.”
“Would I do that? Go blaming myself, I mean.” With our discussion done, I waved our waiter over. They were out of rhubarb pie, but the apple would do.
“Yep,” Tam stated flatly. “You danged sure would.”
The tale teller had not overstated the case. There was a long line of sleeping rooms facing the street. Only two had their windows open, though, which meant the others were vacant at the moment; nobody but maybe one of them Finns looking fer a sauna could survive midday Waco heat without at least opening the window fer a breath of air.
Conveniently fer our purpose, both the Longhorn and Callie’s had benches out front where old men sometimes set and whittled. The two hotels weren’t directly across from one another, but close enough fer guvmint work. We’d each brought down our saddles, him to the bench in front of the Longhorn and me to the one in front of Callie’s. There could be a drygulcher getting set up right over my head, but if so, he was the tale teller’s problem.
I had enough to do without worrying about that.
The idea was to look like I was getting ready to head on down to the stable, jist another saddle tramp either too lazy to git moving quite yet or maybe waiting fer somebody.
A woman came to one of the windows in the Longhorn and stood staring down into the street. Scratch that room. Unless Andy Clay was hiring female assassins these days, and I seriously doubted he had that kind of money.
Jist the one room to fret about, then. I was getting down to that, cranking up some serious worry, when Andy Clay turned our way from a cross street a couple of blocks down. He was riding a heavy-boned pinto that could’ve been my Joker’s uglier brother, and the man fit the horse. Five-eight or so, ruggedly built…and durned if he didn’t think he was Hickok at that.
You could tell by the pearl handled revolvers riding butts forward. Looked exactly like a picture I’d once seen of Wild Bill himself, except that Clay was some thicker around the middle and not likely to attract too many women any time it was still light out. I noted his bulbous nose, one of them red-tinged things that marks a serious drinker, and then forced my attention back to them windows.
The woman was still standing there, still watching. Still nothing to be seen in the other one.
Andy Clay stopped a block down the street, stepped down and tied his ugly pinto to the rail in front of Pete’s Saloon. Dumb placement; a stray shot by his opponent could git his own horse ventilated. Then he come ahead on foot, and I got to say, the man could swagger if nothing else.
Then again, maybe I’d swagger too, iffen I had my enemy dead center in a crossfire. I checked that open window again. Still nothing.
Now it was time fer the unknown shootist to make his stage entrance, and I gotta say, he done it with style. The man who stepped calmly out the front door of the Longhorn was–trim is the only word I can think of, though that didn’t do the fellow justice. He was about the same height as Clay but no more than half as wide, lean and tough as a rawhide riata. Young, in the sense of maybe being twenty, twenty-one years of age at most.
But I’d been a soldier in the War Between the States at that age, and my partner had more battles under his belt by that time than you could shake a stick at.
This kid also wore two guns, but he wore ’em some different from Andy Clay. Not crossdraw, fer one thing. Cutaway holsters, tied down. Most range riders didn’t go fer the tiedown, claiming the thongs cut off the circulation in their thighs and made wearing chaps plumb problematic. My sidearm wasn’t tied down, and neither was Tam’s. If you wore ’em that way, you were either an image-conscious wannabe or you were a stone cold killer who depended on them laces to save you when a hundredth of a second meant the difference between life and death.
He didn’t strike me as no wannabe.
By the time Mr. Nameless reached the center of the street, Clay was close enough to start up with the name calling. The drygulching, if there was to be any, would commence shortly. I returned my attention to that suspect window fer the final time, slipping one hand under the slicker that covered my .44-40 Winchester where I’d laid it beside me on the bench. If there was window shooting to be done, Tam would depend on his Colt…because he could.
Me, I didn’t like my odds with a short gun, shooting across the street and up like that. It’d be a mite slower, but the rifle would put the bullet where I intended it to go. I kept watching and let my ears keep me abreast of what was happening between the official players in the game.
“Cougar!” Andy Clay had a voice like a wounded bull. “You yellow-bellied, backshooting, lowlife sumbitch! I’m calling you out!”
I actually sighed. Why is it the bullies and second rate fighters of the world always think they have to throw insults around, and with exclamation marks at that?
The question is rhetorical, mind you.
“Finally got up the nerve to give it a try, I see,” the man called Cougar replied quietly.
Cougar’s voice sounded familiar. Where had I heard–wait a minute. Cougar? There’d been stories making the rounds about a shootist by that name. But I’d not met the man. Not that I knew of, anyway.
The sun had caught a flash of light off a gun barrel, jist inside that window I’d been watching. I swept the .44-40 from under the slicker, not even bothering to git up from the bench. Shooting from a seated position wasn’t no different from firing from the saddle, or so I told myself.
It seemed like it took forever fer the barrel to lift, the front sight coming into line with that window. I had the hammer back and my finger on the trigger.
And then another window opened.
Later, I would thank God and all His angels fer saving me from shooting an innocent man whose most horrible crime was daring to wearing spectacles that caught the sunlight and threw it at me. I hesitated, the trigger already half squeezed…and the drygulcher’s rifle barrel poked right out of that newly opened window, jist one to the right of the one I was aiming at.
It weren’t but a second’s work to shift aim and finish the squeeze. My rifle barked, two panes of glass flew their shards in every which direction, the ambusher’s weapon tilted skyward before falling back into the room…and I thought fer a moment I was smack dab back in the middle of Gettysburg. There was gunfire going every which way there was a way to go. The flashback threw me off the bench into a rolling dive, not stopping till I’d scrambled through the front door to Callie’s, whereupon I squirreled around to peep back outside.
Not one man, woman or child who witnessed the event mentioned my hit-the-deck reaction, a courtesy fer which I was enormously grateful.
More or less having gotten myself under control–and finding to my considerable relief that I had not peed my pants–I rose to my feet and wandered back outside as if nothing unusual had happened. Which fer Dodge City might have been close to the truth, but this was Waco.
Tam had also found a target to dispatch, which he’d done easy enough with three rounds from his .45 Colt. My partner stood in front of the bench he’d chosen fer a sentinel post, calmly reloading.
Andy Clay rested on his back, limbs outstretched, a look of eternal surprise on his still-ugly face and a spreading tide of red staining his vest. Without his drygulching partners to back him up, his time had run out.
I looked at the shootist who’d drilled him, saw what I’d been expecting to see, and approached the young gunman.
“Dawson Trask,” I introduced myself, “You’d be Cougar Tamson?”
“One of my names,” he admitted, holstering the right hand pistol he’d already reloaded and shaking my extended hand. He turned his attention to Tam, who by this time had finished tending to his sidearm and was headed over to join us in the middle of the street. “And I reckon this would be Tam the tall tale teller.”
“One of my names,” my partner grinned jug ear to jug ear, extending his own hand in turn. “It’s good to finally get a chance to meet you, son.”