Charlie Gauss was dead.
* * *
Why anyone should care was beyond the understanding of the three saddle-stiff brothers who swung down
in front of the cantina in Rio Peidras, a wide spot in a narrow trail down in Chihuahua. They had fought
with Charlie, robbed with him, downed a man's ration of whiskey with him, then robbed some more before
their paths had separated. When word drifted north that some cowhand had stepped up behind Charlie in a
Mex cantina, fed the vicious-mean SOB six beans, reloaded and fed him six more, they raised a glass to
their old comrade, had themselves a rip-roaring good laugh, and forgot him.
Forgot him until they heard the number one thousand, a princely sum for a working man who thought a
three-hundred-dollar haul from a stage stop was worth a month's vacation. No one ever figured Charlie was
worth so much living, but someone put out a dodger promising good money for whoever took down Charlie's
killer, the money to be picked up from a Denver lawyer known to men in the trade. "Wanted Dead or Alive," the
poster declared, and the unspoken preference for the easy way suited the three riders fine.
The promise of such a good payday wasn't official, of course, nothing likely to be tacked up on a Post Office
wall. It circulated only in a certain kind of establishment favored by enterprising men. They'd seen it in
Jarvie's Saloon in Brown's Park, a settlement far from any nosy badge-toter where men could relax when they
weren't on the job. The money was good and they'd done like work before, so here they were, the scene of the
event, "crime" maybe some would call it, them as didn't know Charlie, ready to find the start of the trail.
The oldest of the three spoke with the natural authority the others had acceded to throughout their working lives.
"We're just here to cut the trail dust, no word about our business. Not till we get a feel of the place."
The cantina was what you'd expect from a settlement so small it didn't appear on the map the Rurales had in their
regimental headquarters. It was the kind of village where a man took his saddlebags with him whenever he stepped
away from his horse.
A promising aroma of stale beer assaulted their nostrils as they pushed through the batwings. The hard-packed dirt
floor hadn't felt a broom for weeks, but why brush dirt off dirt? The kerosene chandelier gave enough flickering
light to allow card players at the central rounder, empty now, but left the dozen time-worn plank trestle tables
around the edges of the room in welcoming shadows.
The two hard-bitten men against the left wall who eyed the brothers suspiciously matched the Texas saddles out front.
Neither of the peons bellied to the bar for their tequila turned to watch, but their eyes probed the dusty mirror.
Two of the brothers took possession of a table in the far corner, backs to the wall, where they could watch any
newcomer. Not that they expected trouble here, but showing normal trail caution gave fair warning to everyone of
the kind of men they were. Boyd carried the bottle of overpriced whiskey—whiskey not tequila to make the point
they were unreconstructed Gringos—to join them.
After settling in for an hour, they flagged the bartender over. "Any eats in this place?" They agreed enchiladas
and baked beans were dandy and turned back to their whiskey. Each took his turn in the crib, showing no interest
in anything except the business of satisfying his needs as they let the locals get used to them.
The next morning over his beer, Boyd Runnels figured to talk up the morning-shift barkeep, Anglo-Texas from the sound
of him, down here most likely on the dodge, and maybe liking to hear some friendly lingo. "Word in the States is you
had some excitement a-ways back."
"Been good for business," the barkeep replied. "Men on their way south swing wide from the main trail to hear the story."
"I cell-mated with that bastard a while. Most folks I know would line up to buy drinks for him who done it."
The barkeep polished his glass idly. "Where do you do your time?"
"Brownsville," Boyd lied, playing the Texas connection, "five years when some fat-assed, big-hat rancher didn't
like where I swung my loop."
The barkeep snorted. "Things ain't got no better since the Carpetbaggers were run out. You was lucky not to stretch."
"Surprised me one night when I was trailing three steers into the Eagle Pass butcher. Too many folks around to give me
a cowman's rope, but that's when I reformed myself out of the cattle business."
By then, they were just two windys chewing the cud. "Name's Fred," the barkeep told him. "Me, I splashed my way across
the Rio a spit and a holler ahead of a pack of them Ranger bloodhounds." Fred topped off Boyd's beer as a freebie.
"Dumped me one who pushed too close. Now, I can't never go back."
"Good old Charlie had himself a fine going-out party, word is."
"Not much of a party, drinking tequila like regular. Didn't even know he was going til he was on the floor."
"Local cowhand, word is."
"Don't know where that word came from. Never seen him before. Never seen him since. Wearing a plainsman's flat hat,
so I figure he come from the States."
Boyd drained his glass and gestured for a refill. "Didn't say nothing to Charlie? Just busted in and done it?"
The barkeep laughed. "Coolest kill I ever saw. Barged in, already drawn and cocked and started dropping his hammer
while he was walking across the room, careful not to kill too quick." He passed Boyd a full glass. "While he was
refilling his wheel, Gauss was still groaning and this kid taunted him with the name." He struggled to remember it.
"Ralston, Rowlands, something like that, groined Charlie with his last loads, then strode out, leaving Charlie an
hour or two to look at his bloody crotch and think about his sins."
"Hardly long enough for Charlie to get a fair start making a list," Boyd said. He took his new beer over to the
table where Steve and Mickey were drinking their breakfast. The two putas left as he approached.
"The brassy gal told me Charlie complained that there was nothing but 'stinking Shoshone,' where he came from,"
Mickey reported. "Her and the other whore didn't shed no tears when they lost his trade."
"Plainsman's hat?" Steve said." Put that with Shoshone. Sounds like Wyoming."
Boyd Runnels hit pay dirt in the third saloon.
* * *
Rawlins, a muscular town of twenty-two hundred souls, still struggled to decide whether it was bringing knowledge
and prosperity to the West as an outpost of civilization or whether it valued its commitment to the unconstrained
vigor of sinew and bone that built—was still building—the new state of Wyoming.
The conflict in identities assailed Boyd's ears as he strode along Front Street. The rumble of farm wagons competed
with cursing teamsters in the street, horsemen cursed back, all yielding to the urgent clatter of the Wyoming Lines
stage making its noontime arrival from Medicine Bow, a cacophony jarring to the ears of a man who spent his life
away from crowds, ears attuned to the danger present even in the sudden silence of a cricket, the flutter of a
grouse, warnings that would be inaudible in the Rawlins metropolis.
He gave little interest to the random assortment of store fronts serving townsfolk: milliners, tailor shops promising
made-to-measure shirts, household furnishing stores, white-linen restaurants; he paused briefly to window-shop at the
gun store, craned his neck to stare in wonder at the town's architectural pride, the massive four-story Willis
Building, stone-fronted, large panes of glass, giving evidence of the prosperity of the Farmer's and Merchant's Bank
on the first floor, the upper floors serving as office space, and the solid structure leaving no doubt where it stood
on the advance of civilization, not that a man in his line of work ever resented the arrival of new banks.
Over steak and eggs, Runnels had given his brothers their assignments. Steve had been dispatched to read through back
issues of the Rawlins Gazette. Young Mickey, who didn't have the stamp on his face yet, would drift around town and
sample the whiskey at the sweat-and-dirt cowhand saloons in case Charlie had been trawling for some hungry kid to side
him on some action he planned. Himself, he was after Charlie's regular watering hole.
Rawlins had dozens of saloons, but it wasn't hard to narrow down the search. Charlie would never have been drinking
with townsmen, nor with the thirty-and-found rannies from local ranches, not if he could avoid it. The kind of
whiskey mills he settled into were made for men of sterner stuff. Runnels knew he had found the right place as soon
as he shouldered through the batwings. Located down a narrow side street, with no frills, no special ornamentation
to make hard-working men from the ranches think they had entered a world above themselves, the Last Stand Saloon was
dominated by old wood tables, no pictures on the wall beyond the framed print from which the saloon took its name. a
whiskey-stained oak, not mahogany, bar, but it did have a mirror polished bright so a man could read the room while
he rested his belly. It was a hard place for hard men. Runnels felt comfortable at once. Charlie would have too.
"Double Anchor," he told the barkeep.
"A man who likes good whiskey," the apron replied. "New in town?"
"Drifting around. An old saddlemate said he was heading this way. Thought I might hook-up with him. Charlie Gauss."
"You a friend of Charlie?"
"Worked with him time to time. Don't know Charlie was ever much into having friends."
The bartender laughed. "Yeah, you know Charlie. Mean bastard, but he paid for his drinks." He refilled Boyd's glass
as he reflected. "He watched his quarters real close at first, then seems he had plenty to spread around. He'd been
seen a time or two on the Hill, up where the big houses are. Scuttlebutt was he had himself a woman. Never heard who."
"Charlie always works the angles. He still around?"
"Had him some trouble and headed south, a randy kid on his tail. Ain't seen either of them since."
In their hotel room that night, the brothers compared what they had learned. "Had money for drinks and cribbing, that's
all the barkeep knew," Boyd reported.
* * *
Mickey had only a little more to report. "Sampled a half dozen saloons. Finally found me one where Charlie's name brought
a sour face, so I knew I'd found him. Can't tell you much, but it's a low-class dive for cowhands who've tangled their
dally ropes, the place a man goes when he's looking someone to partner up with. Charlie was making himself agreeable to
any young, solitary hand who wandered in. Barkeep said the talk looked serious, but he didn't know about what."
"Recruiting," Steve speculated.
"Maybe we're going after it wrong, looking for his killer," Boyd mused. "Maybe it'd be easier to find someone who thinks
doing the job is worth a thousand dollars."
"A woman," Steve said. "No man would give yesterday's chaw for the bastard." Boyd and Mickey saw no reason to disagree and
Steve began his report.
"Counting back, I figured Charlie skedaddled about three months back, so I had the paper man pull out the last six months of
his rag and I looked for any trace of Charlie."
"Not for the last two months. Then I come across a story three months back. Didn't mention Charlie at all. Some dirt-scratcher
named Donovan five miles out of town, the hired hand was killed, the woman did some entertaining before she went dark."
"Charlie Gauss, sure . . . that's his style."
"Woman's husband saw it the same way when he got back from Cheyenne. He strapped his old Civil War Army Dragoon around his
waist, rode to town, and called Charlie out. I don't need to tell you what happened next."
"Poor ole Charlie. Probably broke him up what he had to do." When their laughter subsided, Steve continued.
"Sheriff called it self-defense, but took the killing of the woman more serious. Newspaper says he swore out a warrant
but Charlie wasn't around no more."
"Story about the burial. The farmer had a kid who's been riding cow up in Johnson County, where some of the action's been.
Guess he figured he knew why Colt makes shooting irons. When they plopped the dirt on his old man, he ranted that he'd get
the killer. No one's seen him since."
"Barkeep down in Rio Peidras said Charlie was gunned by a kid. Guess we got us a who. Just not a where."
"I kept reading back further. Found another story. Bank robbery four months back, local banker name of James Willis was killed."
"A bank, a killing, and Charlie in town. Hard to think that's a coincidence."
"Story says two robbers, both masked, one looking middle-aged, one young, did their business, galloped down Front Street
and by the time any of these townies thought to saddle up, the trail was cold."
"So, that it?"
"Pretty much. Big write-up about the banker's funeral. Preacher spouted the usual sky-pilot guff, messages read from both Senators
back in Washington City, how his grieving daughter Penelope broke down at graveside, how the whole town mourned his loss, the usual
bullcrap when some stuffed shirt takes it."
"A woman on the hill," Boyd remembered the barkeep's words. "Think maybe I need to pay a call on the grieving daughter."
Boyd Runnels felt intimidated even before he turned in at the brick walkway. The house, set back from a well-manicured lawn
and framed by shrubbery someone had to empty the Denver Mint to water in summer time, was a massive structure by Runnels'
experience, a portico sided by two-story columns, gables on the third floor. Him and his brothers and their folks could
have spread out and lived in half the ground floor.
* * *
"Morning Miss Willis," he said to the woman whose black mourning arm band was a studied contrast with the silky lemon-soft
blouse that cried out to a man's hands. "Man I used to ride with, he said he was going to traipse up to Rawlins. Thought
I'd look him up. Folks thought you could tell me where I'd find good old Charlie."
"Charlie Gauss, big fellow. 'Bout, my size. Know him?"
She covered her surprise quick, Boyd thought, as she looked around to see if neighbors were watching her welcome a gun-hung
plug-ugly like him into her home.
The furnishings of the house outdid the front. Plush carpeting, brocade wall paper, a grand piano, not a tinny barroom upright,
a soft settee for two and overstuffed chairs that could cause a man's muscles to go soft, luxury he had only seen in the
plushest of Denver brothels, but with a difference: not warring the senses; understated here, in a way that enhanced the
effect. This was what it meant to have money. Charlie's eyes would have popped out of his skull.
Now they stood in the center of the room, the drawing room he thought folks with real houses called it. She let a dreamy
gloss, not too forced, come over her eyes. "Charlie Gauss. Strong and gentle."
Boyd couldn't stifle a gasp. "Gentle . . . "
"Naturally, he had to make himself appear rough to brutal men that only understand coarse strength, but a woman sees through
such things. The Charlie I got to know so well had a manly strength that a woman could sense was kind and gentle."
Boyd let her tell the story: they had met seemingly by accident. They had become close, "not that way, you understand, I'm a
proper lady." She talked about his manliness, she told how he had plans to go into business in Rawlins, all he needed was a
little capital. How she tried to help him, "such an asset to any community, don't you think?" But then came the lies, the
slanders. "Of course Charlie could never be cruel." She told about the gunfight, "that horrid farmer who tried to murder
Charlie right in middle of Front Street," the vicious threats the young Donovan had made at grave side, Charlie's generous
decision to travel "to preserve the town's peace." But finally the sad news. "I'm sorry to tell you Charlie is dead." She
reached out to steady herself on his arm as she sobbed gently. She let his other hand pat her comfortingly.
After a moment she seemed to recover. "Now all I have left is my memories. I've never met anyone who knew him and he talked
so little. Tell me about his early days."
Boyd fidgeted. This had to be done carefully. Tell her enough, but not too much."Not sure how much to say. Maybe you figured,
him and me didn't always ride straightest of trails. Couldn't fence him in, not back in the Texas days."
"Some men were born to live free."
"That's Charlie Gauss, for sure. They get the skunk who done it?"
She shook her head and sobbed, or tried to look like she was sobbing, "It was the Donovan boy. But it happened in Mexico. The
sheriff says he has no evidence he can use."
"That's not right," Boyd growled, he hoped convincingly. "I rode with Charlie. I can't let it pass. I got to find the horned toad."
"He's a cowhand up near Kaycee," she said.
"Not for long."
"That sounds so much like Charlie," she said. Her hand slid gently along Boyd's arm. "Strong, decisive. Whenever he walked in, the
room sizzled with energy. Much as it does now. A woman needs to feel the power."
No money was mentioned. Women could promise different ways of showing gratitude, ways that would leave no ties to the killing. When
she moved in close, he welcomed what she was doing, letting himself enjoy what came next, her softness spreading itself against his
chest, her hands moving in sensuous circles across his hard-muscled back, her lips questing to taste his power. Like any man, Boyd
let her pleasure him, but Charlie thought so much of himself, he would have been fooled.
After longer than was decent, Boyd reluctantly released his embrace. "After I do right by Charlie, I'll be back," he promised her,
not having to work to sound husky. Maybe there was more on offer, who could tell. "Then you and me can get to know each other real good."
"I want that, Boyd," she purred.
The chunky young cowhand had dropped off the freshly-rebranded heifer at the holding pen behind Charley Anderson's
Hog Ranch, done his business, and swaggered out to the corral. He was swinging to the saddle when a friendly-looking
kid he had never seen rode up. "Looking for work," Mickey Runnels said. "Know any ranches doing hiring?"
* * *
"We got a couple of empty bunks at C-Double-R. You could ride out with me and ask."
So Curt Donovan unsuspectingly rode toward his destiny. Half a mile away as they crested a rise, two horsemen waited. Even
before Donovan could tense, Mickey's gun barrel was digging into his ribs. "My brothers got some business to talk over with you."
The riders turned south across the rolling range until they came to a dip where a small creek had washed deep enough to give
their business the needed privacy.
"Swing down," Boyd ordered. "Don't have to fall so far that way."
Donovan cursed as he dismounted. "That bitch! She's paying you to stop my clock, ain't she? "
"The Willis whore! That sorry business was her from the beginning. She found this would-be hard-ass, near forty and getting
long in the tooth—no offence," he said hastily to Boyd—"looking to make his life's killing. She twisted him around
her finger like so much twine. Folks like her, living in the big houses, they think all they got to do is flicker their
eyelashes and a man runs to do what they want."
"Charlie always had a taste for the finer things." Boyd said.
"She yarned him that a woman needed his strength, that they'd get married. Then it turned out her Pa lined her up to marry some
big depositor, like he didn't already have enough money. But that could be handled easy enough. Gauss signed me up and we done
what she wanted."
"You were the second robber?"
"We waltzed in just before closing, stuffed our saddlebags full of what was on offer in the vault, Gauss did his chore and we
skedaddled to my folks' farm five miles out of town. We hunkered down there, divvied up the fifty-two hundred dollar take,
and he lit out."
"Newspapers said you got away with over twenty thousand."
"I figure the cashier was in on the deal. Me, I didn't care. What a laugh! Paying off my Pa's mortgage with the banker's own
money. Guess Gauss didn't care either. Him being sweet on that skirt, he figured it was all his one way or the other."
"So then I came back up here to my job, that polecat not telling me he planned to take a ride and shut some mouths."
"Charlie could be forgetful that way."
"When he lined me up, I let that bastard think I was just some dinky three-for-a-nickel plowman's kid. When he found
I red-shirted my share up here, rustlers, nesters and two-bitters, cleaning out the vermin, he yellowed, aimed his
nag's snout south and scampered. Told the Willis woman he'd come back and they could get hitched as soon as she sent
word things had cooled off. When he wrote to let her know what stinking hole he was squirreled away in, she sent for
me and told me how I could make good on my brag to score him."
"Quick trip down, even quicker job, way the barkeep tells it."
"When I come back she told me I'd stomped out evil in the world, making like she cared." Donovan cursed again. "Then
word went around she and the cashier had the hots for each other all along."
Mickey had grown tired of the useless palaver and leveled his revolver. "Cut the chin music. Let's get it done. Them
doves back at the hog ranch are waiting."
Steve raised a hand to restrain his impatient brother. "You hearing what I'm hearing, Boyd?"
"I'm hearing money."
"Likely the bankers group has a reward out on him," Steve speculated.
"And insurance companies pay a percentage of what you save them. Sounds like we got a good story to tell. Ten percent of
fifteen thousand dollars will stand us for a long spree in San Fran." He turned to his younger brother. "You got some
paper in your saddlebags, Mickey. Fetch it out. Our cowhand here's got some writing to do."
"Ain't going to do it," Donovan declared. "You greedy bastards'll cash my chips anyway. I ain't doing nothing to fatten
your suck off my blood."
Boyd's light chuckle was almost disarming and he seemed faintly amused as he laid it out for Donovan.
"Let's reason this through together, friend," Boyd began. "We're just one simple trigger pull from earning us a thousand
dollars. Maybe the extra money from the bankers would get paid if we cart you in face down, maybe not. Likely we'd take
the gamble. But the insurance company needs your testimony in court if it's going to get its money back. You're writing
the story out so you can't change your tune when you ain't under our guns. Your choice: you can write and ride to town,
or you can fall down here."
As he walked up the brick path to the Willis mansion, Boyd Runnels felt none of the intimidation of his first visit. While
he knuckled the front door, his brothers stood to one side out of her view as the door swung open. She wore the same inviting
soft yellow blouse, top button already undone as though she had been expecting him.
The spurious hunger in her eyes faded fast when Steve and Mickey stepped up beside him. He'd just complicated her life. Like
as not she had planned for that lawyer in Denver to get another untraceable commission.
"My brothers and me, we found him real easy, Penny." He handed over the dodger. "Now the job's done, don't see no reason to
sweat the trail all the way to Denver for our money when you're right here."
If she thought about objecting, she quickly had second thoughts. The whole scheme had been designed to keep her name out of
it. Spurning these three men would be a big mistake. She took them into the room her father had used as an office, opened
the safe and counted out the stack of bills. The brothers saw themselves as honest outlaws; they let her replace the rest
of the money and swing the safe shut. "With his killer finally dead, Charlie can rest in peace."
"Didn't say he was dead," Boyd told her as he stuffed the wad in his pocket. "Said we earned our pay. 'Dead or alive,' like
the poster said. We knew you'd want us to do our work like good law-abiding citizens. Donovan's down telling the Sheriff
some interesting stories."
"Ashamed to say, though, my brother here has become a disgrace to the family. Show her Steve."
Steve pulled back his vest to reveal the temporary-issue deputy's badge pinned to his shirt. He couldn't help grinning at
the incongruity of him speaking the words. "Penelope Willis, you're under arrest as accessory to robbery, insurance fraud,