Killing is easy once you get used to it. Trouble is, that's also when you step away from the human race. Joe Noble trained the sight of his Sharps .54 caliber rifle over Big John Nash's heart, took in the slack on the trigger, expelled his breath without breathing in, and gently squeezed the trigger. The gun jumped in his hands and Big John, owner of the Slash C ranch, staggered backwards a step, his hand over his heart, then crumpled. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Joe eased back from the hill crest, stood up and scrambled down to his horse. He slammed his rifle into the scabbard and mounted up. Turning his horse southbound, he rode easily for Waco, Texas. He took a circuitous route and after two days, rode slowly into town from the southwest. He pulled up at the Cactus Spike saloon. Taking a deep breath, he looked slowly around for any sign of danger. Stepping down from his horse, he tied it at the hitching rail and walked through the batwing doors. He stepped to the side and stopped, letting his eyes adjust to the dim bar.
Three men sat at a table playing cards and a bartender stood behind the bar. The bartender made eye contact with him, nodded once and poured a shot of whiskey. Joe walked to the bar, spurs jingling and collected the rye, along with the folded piece of paper and a leather pouch that the bartender slid him.
"Virgil got the same note," whispered the barkeep, "five hundred dollars extra to whoever gets him."
Joe nodded and strode to a table in the back corner of the bar. He sat down with his back to a wall. He took a small sip of the whiskey, winced at the taste, unfolded the paper and read the note.
Joe Noble killed for a living. He'd been in the business for twelve years and was very good at it, the best, as a matter of fact. If a man wanted someone to die, and had money to spend, the word and money got to Noble through his network of bartenders and a deal was made. Money was left with a whiskey slinger and it got to Noble through a series of deliveries to one of his trusted men. No matter how closely the Pinkertons and lawmen watched, they never found Noble. Within a month of receiving the money, the target died, usually from a bullet, but sometimes from a knife or a rope. Generally, the name of the intended target was included in the contract. Sometimes, as in this case, there was no name, just a title: Sheriff, Pecos, Texas.
He didn't like killing sheriffs, not out of a sense of right or wrong, but out of a sense of survival. Too often, sheriff killers were hunted down like dogs and killed in almost barbaric ways. Killing a sheriff took special skill, escaping afterward took exceptional skill. He took a sip of whiskey, wincing again as the trail of fire seeped down his throat and into his gut. He thought it over. Virgil Maddison was another paid assassin. Almost as good as Joe himself. He was also a man who took chances, liking to confront men in the open, testing his speed as a gunfighter.
The leather poke he received from the bartender contained five hundred dollars in gold coins. It rested on the table in front of him. He didn't need the money. He had plenty saved up in a Denver bank. He didn't like playing games either. Dealing death was dangerous enough without looking over your shoulder for another dealer. He thought he might take a pass on this one, send the money back and lay up for a rest right where he was. There were several comfortable hotels in Waco and the Blue Bell Café served up some pretty good grub.
He was contemplating whether the need for another drink outweighed the horrible tasting rotgut he'd been served when the sound of approaching horses flowed through the batwing doors. He looked out the window attentively, always interested in passers-by. It paid to know who was in town when you had a lot of enemies. He didn't recognize the four men riding up the street, but when they came abreast of him, he recognized the brands on their horses; the Slash C.
He didn't know what happened in the aftermath of the killing, but the appearance of those four men on Slash C horses was enough for him. For all he knew, they had somehow trailed him, an act that he had trouble believing. He wasn't a coward, but his first rule of survival was to always avoid a fight, if possible; it was a good rule to follow for a man in his business.
Standing, he pocketed the coins and decided he might as well take the job since he couldn't remain there. He slapped two bits on the bar and nodded to the bartender. The nod was the signal that he accepted the job. He turned and walked quickly out the back door.
The bartender watched Noble go, amazed at how insignificant the man was, average height and weight, curly brown hair . . . except for the eyes. They were the iciest blue eyes he'd ever seen. A chill ran down his back as he turned back to shining the never-ending supply of dirty glasses.
Noble's bay gelding stepped lively and he settled comfortably into the worn saddle. His eyes roamed left and right, always looking for the unseen enemy, a rifle barrel from a rooftop, a pistol extended from a window. Hell, he even half expected a bow and arrow to come from around the next corner. His life centered around death. He dealt it out and expected it to be dealt to him at any given moment. He wouldn't, however, make it easy for anyone. He learned to live with it by shutting off all emotion. He had no friends, no lovers, no feelings for anyone.
As the miles slowly fell into line behind him, he thought about his life and how he'd arrived at the present point. Twelve years before, he and Charlie Callahan were as close as brothers. They rode, worked and raised hell together. They were thick as thieves, closer than most brothers. Then Charlie had gone and married Ethel Morgan. Ethel. The girl he, Joe Noble, had fallen in love with and whom he had thought loved him back. After they married, Charlie took Ethel out to Arizona to start a ranch of their own, leaving Joe heart broken and alone. He went on a month long drunken spree. He felt empty, betrayed, deserted. He couldn't forgive either one. He hated them both.
A man approached him after he came out of that drunken melee. Joe was broke, jobless and friendless. He was also mad enough to kill Charlie and Ethel. So, when the man offered him fifty dollars to kill a rival for a young woman's affections, he took the job. It was messy. He'd just walked up to the man, asked him his name, palmed his Colt, and shot him dead in the street. He'd run to his horse, vaulted into the saddle and high-tailed it out of there. He rode hard for thirty minutes, then slowed to a walk, resting his horse. As he walked, it occurred to him that he only had twenty-five of the promised fifty dollars and hadn't figured out how to get the balance. He couldn't go back to town because he'd shot the fellow down in broad daylight in front of at least thirty people.
Queasiness filled his stomach at the thought of the killing, but it had been easy money, and had helped ease his anger a bit at Charlie and Ethel. He resolved to plan better if he ever got the opportunity again. Of course, word got around and sure enough, men started searching out his services. He didn't like the fact that people could recognize him, so he built a network of bartenders. News eventually got around that if Joe Noble's services were wanted, a few words with a bartender in any of fifty towns and a sack of gold coins would ensure the offer got to Noble. He paid the bartenders and their messengers well and they knew that if they ever crossed him, their's would be the next forehead centered in Noble's gun sights.
Over the next twelve years, Joe Noble got better and better at planning his kills and escapes. He also got better at staying out of public view. Only two trusted bartenders knew him. They ensured the messenger network functioned smoothly and efficiently. They hired the other bartenders and messengers. They saw to it that the rules were followed. In the early days, a few of the rye dealers were a little too casual with their tongues. Noble's trusted barkeeps delivered a solid whipping and a promise of a visit by Noble if there were any more slips. There were no more loose tongues and the network remained intact and secure.
Noble traveled easily. The weather wasn't too hot yet, so he camped when there wasn't lodging nearby. He carefully scouted each town before and as he entered, always keeping an eye out for enemies. If he had any doubts or didn't feel right about a town, he simply rode around it and continued on. In Fort Worth, he decided to ride the rails the rest of the way. He loaded his horse on a stock car and studied each passenger. He breathed a sigh of relief when he didn't recognize any of them. He chose a seat at the back of the car where no one could sit behind him. He settled back and pulled his beat up, old, gray hat down over his eyes. His ears stayed attuned to all that was going on around him and his eyes snapped open whenever a footstep sounded nearby. Joe Noble was accustomed to living carefully.
The train pulled into Pecos and no sign of the brilliant orange and red sky remained when he stepped down at the station. He stepped to a corner, boots sounding hollowly on the walk, staying in the dark shadows as he surveyed his surroundings. Two cowboys entered a saloon half-way down the street and a dozen horses stood, tied at hitching rails. No one else moved on the street. Tinny music from an out-of-tune piano played from the saloon.
Satisfied, he walked to the stock car and retrieved his horse. The station master told him the livery stable was one street over on the other end of town. He decided to walk there and get a feel for things. He passed three hotels and four saloons, all open, and four eating houses, only one of which was still open. He tied his horse in front, and went in. The waitress's smile was pretty, so were her bright, blue eyes.
"You got here just in time mister. I was about to lock the door, but I can get you the last of the stew and I know there's a piece of apple pie left. Will that do for you?"
Joe nodded. "That'll be just fine, and coffee too if you have any?"
"Mister, coffee's the first thing we make in the morning and we keep brewing it until closing time. I'll make sure your cup stays full." She smiled at Noble, enjoying the chance to give a lone man her undivided attention. Usually she dealt with at least half a dozen hungry men at a time. This one was handsome, in an odd way, although he did seem a bit aloof and he had the most curious eyes she had ever seen, light blue, almost like ice. She gave him an extra smile as she turned to fetch his food.
Joe's heart softened. He suddenly recalled the strong feelings he'd felt for Ethel and wished for the millionth time that she would have chosen him. That it could have been him to take off with her to Arizona, to start a ranch and raise a family. For a moment he imagined that wishful life with the pretty young waitress.
Joe, you got no business paying that young girl attention. You know you can't have a wife and family in your line of business.
He shook his head angrily and moved to a table in the back of the room where no one could come up from behind. He was the lone customer, but old habits like that kept him alive.
"Here's your coffee mister," she said as she entered the room from the kitchen. She looked him over good as she approached the table trying to decide if she liked what she saw. She couldn't place her finger on what attracted her to him, but there was something intriguing. Those eyes, they looked cold and ancient, as though they'd seen a lifetime of death and tragedy. She shivered, but still, somehow, felt drawn to him.
Noble gratefully sipped the coffee and was mildly surprised at how good it was. He heard boots on the boardwalk approaching the café as the waitress came out of the kitchen with his food. She placed the bowl of stew and plate of pie in front of him.
"That coffee is about the best I've ever tasted Miss."
Molly's eyes lit up with pleasure at the comment and her smile grew even larger.
"Well thank you Mister. My name's Molly. If you need something else, just holler, and I'll keep your cup full." She turned and started back, adding an extra little swing to her hips and blushing at the thought that she would flirt so brazenly with the man.
The approaching footsteps came abreast of the café window. Light from the café flooded the walking man's chest and reflected briefly on the silver star. His face came into view. Noble's hand froze half-way to his mouth. The slow methodical footsteps continued past the window.
"Molly?" his voice was suddenly hoarse.
Molly twirled back towards him, a hopeful smile glowed on her face. "Yes?"
"What's the sheriff's name?"
Her smile lessened noticeably. "Oh. Charlie. Charlie Callahan. He got elected about two years ago now. He seems like a good man. He came from out west somewhere. Arizona, I think."
Joe's hand sank slowly back to the dish. He set the spoon down quietly. His face flushed red and his breath came in short bursts. For twelve years he'd wanted the chance to kill Charlie and now it was there in front of him. He wanted to jump up and shoot him down in the street, but slowly, he regained control of his emotions. Emotion had no place in his business. He would do it the right way and not let his feelings blur the lines.
"Mister? Are you okay?"
Noble looked at Molly. "Yes. Yes, I'm just fine," he said and finished the meal without tasting a single bite. He left four bits on the table and left.
Molly frowned and pouted, then locked the door and went back to finish cleaning up. She'd thought there was a possibility with that one. She sighed when she realized she hadn't even found out his name.
* * *
The next morning, Noble was up early. A coldness crept through his stomach as he stepped into the street. A hollow cavern grew where his heart should be. When he walked through the door of the restaurant, Molly was there. She smiled at him, determined to make an impression. It surprised him. Something fluttered in his stomach.
What the hell?
He shook it off and took a seat next to the window in the corner with a wall at his back. He needed to see Charlie when he came down the street.
"What'll you have this morning mister?"
He glanced up into those smiling eyes and felt his stomach flop again and his cheeks flush.
Molly's smile grew even bigger when she recognized the mutual attraction.
He looked down and said, "just coffee this morning Molly. Thanks."
He was confused by his feelings. He'd never gotten fluttery over a woman since Ethel, and this was definitely not the time to start. He kept his eyes on the street when he heard her approach again. She set the coffee on the table.
"Thanks," he nodded, his eyes averted. He heard her heavy sigh as she turned and left.
Noble stiffened. They were a block away, but he recognized them easily enough. Ethel was still attractive, but thin, too thin. Like she'd missed more than one meal recently. A boy of about eleven years, the spitting image of his father, walked between them, eyes wide, taking in everything on the street. Noble stood and strode to the door. He stepped onto the walk, braced for this long-awaited revenge.
Just as Noble was about to draw and shoot, Charlie stopped, kissed Ethel on the cheek and turned to the boy.
"Joe, you take care of your Ma today and make sure you get all your chores done before I get home. You hear?" he said with a smile.
Noble's heart switched on. Twelve years of emotion erupted from way down deep in his gut. Hatred, jealousy, loneliness, and anger flowed out through his fingertips, toes and the ends of his hair. They were replaced by wonderment and awe. Charlie had named his kid after him, Joe Noble.
A shout rang out, loud and clear.
"Time's up Sheriff! I gave you fair warning to leave. You should've taken it."
Noble saw Charlie turn toward the opposite side of the street, keeping his family behind him. Two men stood in front of Rosie's Saloon. One of them Noble knew instantly, Virgil Maddison. Virgil's hand swept downward.
The whole scene moved in slow motion. Joey was squirming around his father to get a better look at what was happening. Ethel screamed and pushed forward to protect her son, knocking Charlie slightly to the left. Virgil's gun came up blazing, his first bullet went true to the spot where Charlie had been, but was now occupied by Ethel. She went down instantly with a bullet through her heart. Charlie drew his gun awkwardly, trying to pull Joey to safety, but he wasn't quick enough. Virgil shifted his aim and fired again. A bloody rose blossomed on Charlie's white shirt.
Noble yelled in fury and leaped into the street, drawing his gun as he went. Surprised, Virgil turned to meet the new threat, but couldn't bring his gun to bear in time. Charlie fired three times, each bullet tearing through Virgil's heart. He dropped limply to the ground. Noble shifted his aim to the man who had shouted the challenge. His hands were up, face ashen.
"Now wait a minute Mister! This ain't no affair of yours. I'm Matt Douglas. I own the biggest spread around here and was just taking care of some private business. Just back off now and stay out of this if you know what's good for you!"
Noble's eyes darted to Virgil, then back up to Douglas. He glanced at the bodies of Charlie and Ethel, and saw Joey sobbing over them, trying to get them to stand up. He turned back to Douglas who was regaining his color and confidence, seeing that Noble hadn't done anything."
"You're a Sheriff killer Douglas. Plus, you got his wife killed. You don't deserve to live."
"Wait a min—"
But Noble's bullet couldn't be stopped as it bored its way between Douglas's eyes, through his skull and ripped through the brain. Douglas fell to the ground twitching as his brain sent out stray signals to his nerves.
Noble reloaded then holstered his pistol and turned towards Joey. He walked to the boy and gently helped him up.
"It's all right son. I'm your Uncle Joe. If you'll let me, I'd be proud to take care of you now."
Straightening, he led the crying boy back to the hotel. As he stepped up on the boardwalk, Molly stepped forward and put her arm around Joey. Noble's icy blue eyes met Molly's bright blue eyes. He smiled at her and nodded. He accepted her deal. Together the three walked into the hotel.