A leather-faced, sun-dried individual with a star on his chest was drowsing over a stack of reward posters, waking up occasionally to swat at a fly which buzzed around his ear. But the instant a shadow appeared in the door, Tate Randall, through long and self-preserving habit, swiftly came to life, one hand half stretched out as a welcoming gesture and the other on the Colt at his side. His bleached eyes squinted as he inspected Lee.
“Say! You’re Lee Weston!”
“Right,” said Lee.
“Thought you was up in Wyomin’ someplace havin’ a hell of a time for yourself! Bet old Tom’ll be plenty pleased to see you again. Used to stand down by the post office and read us your letters whenever you wrote. I thought—” “My father was killed last night. The house was burned and the stock run off. I’m giving it to you straight, Randall.
I’m looking for Harvey Dodge.”
“Huh? Why, man, you must be loco! Harvey Dodge came in and bought the biggest spread in the valley. He’s probably the biggest rancher in these parts now. He wouldn’t do nothin’ like that!”
“I’m still looking for Harvey Dodge.”
Tate Randall stood up and shook his head. “Sonny, I’ve burned enough powder to run a war, and I’ve shot enough lead to sink a flatboat. If I had it to do over again, I’d use my head and let the law do the findin’ and shootin’. If you go gunnin’ for Dodge without any more evidence than you’ve got, there’s only one thing that’ll happen to you. We’ll be building a scaffold out here to string you up. Now think it over. You’n me can ride out and look over this killin’ and then—”
In disgust, Lee, turning, started toward the door. But it was blocked by a smooth-shaven, rotund gentleman in a frock coat. Lee saw eyes and hands and thought, “Gambler!”
“What’s up, Tate?”
“Doherty, like to have you meet Lee Weston, old Tom’s boy.”
Ace Doherty extended a be-diamonded hand, which Lee took doubtfully.
“Doherty,” continued Tate Randall, “this young feller is about to go on the gun trail for Harvey Dodge. You can back me up that Harvey ain’t in town.”
“No, he’s not around,” said Doherty dutifully. “You’ve got Dodge wrong, youngster. He wouldn’t pull any gun tricks, like killin’ your old man.”
“I don’t recall telling you that my father was dead,” said Lee.
“Heard it at the store,” replied Doherty. “Well, cool him off, Tate. You’re the law and order in these parts.” He walked away.
Lee faced Randall again. “It’s all right to try to cut me down to size, but there’s only one thing that counts with me right now, Randall. Last night about twenty men jumped my father. He wrote me his only enemy here was this Harvey Dodge. I’m talking to Dodge.”
“Well,” shrugged Randall, “if you don’t trust justice, you don’t trust it, that’s all. Trouble with you gunslingers—”
“I don’t happen to be a gunslinger.”
Randall grinned thinly, looking at the well-worn Colts on the younger man’s thighs. “Maybe I heard different.”
“Maybe you did,” said Lee. “But in Wyoming, it hasn’t been fixed yet that courts and sheriffs can be used by crooks.”
“Maybe you’d better take that back, son.”
“I’ll reserve judgment on that. But everybody is taking this too calm. The whole town has known for hours what happened out on the Lightning W, and you’re still sitting here!”
He ignored the sudden challenge in the old gunfighter’s eyes and turned his back upon him to stride out into the hot sunlight. The first thing he noticed was that the street was deserted, even to the loafers on the porch of the general store.
He tensed, seeing that a puncher had just led a favored bronc well out of harm’s way.
Lee’s steps were measured as he approached his buckskin. But things were far from right. He felt a cold chill course down his spine, and turned to face the porch of the Silver Streak Saloon. A thickset man was standing there, arms hanging loosely level with his gun butts. He was unshaven and dirty, but for all that, there was an air of authority about him.
“You lookin’ for Dodge, fella?”
Lee came to a stop. “Got anything to offer?”
“Yeah,” drawled the man on the porch.
And then it happened. Like a snake striking, the fellow’s hands grabbed guns. Lee leaped to the right, flipping his Colts free. Thunder roared from the porch, and then Lee hammered lead through the pall of smoke which drifted between them.
A pair of boots dropped into sight under the white cloud.
Slowly the gunman sagged to the earth, both hands clutched across his stomach, still holding his guns. He made one last effort to fire, but the shot ploughed dust. He lay still.
Lee saw doors swing wide on the other side of the street.
Three punchers leaped forth, taking one startled glance at the dead man and then grabbing for their guns.
Across the way, another door opened, to show the muzzle of a Winchester. Lee saw that he had too many on too many sides. He jammed his toe into the buckskin’s stirrup and swung over. Shots crashed and a slug almost ripped him from the saddle. Another struck, and his leg went numb.
Valiantly he fired toward the punchers, making them duck for an instant. He dug spur and sped down the street, the Winchester making the air crackle above his head.
Hanging grimly to his horn, his face white with strain, he guided the running buckskin out into the prairie and then north, toward the hill that loomed blue in the distance.
Lee knew that he had only started. The man on the Silver Streak porch had been too young to be Harvey Dodge. He knew that he had just started, but with his life pouring redly from two wounds, he knew that the chances were high against his ever finishing anything but living.