Big Ed Smiley, the big man in the county, the big shot who owned most of the wealth in the region, had reached the point where he felt he could do anything he wanted to do and get away with it. This time, though, when he plucked the fifteen-year-old Benson girl, Mona, off the street and hauled her out to his ranch as a personal toy, he made a mistake. The Benson family was well respected in the area and the residents of the town of Scarlet, county seat of Nebo County were outraged.
As a result, the citizens formed a group and marched on Sheriff Wells' office to voice their complaints of Smiley's outrageous act of kidnapping the young girl. Sheriff Adam Wells called on two of the most fearsome of the citizens and enlisted their help. One of the men he picked was a large man, an ex-prize fighter and saloon keeper named Jim Enloe. The other man was an older fellow, named Tillman Dead, who owned a restaurant across the street from the sheriff's office.
Three days before with the circus in town Big Ed Smiley brought his entire army in, and among them was one of his prisoners, a man named Withers who had fallen from the good graces of Smiley. Smiley placed him in a small box, set him in the middle of the street where the full sun would hit him all day long. It was plain to all that Smiley meant to leave Withers there to bake to death in the sun. Jim Enloe had watched the man suffer each passing day. He decided to take things into his own hands, since Sheriff Wells was alone with only his authority to back him up. Enloe finally saw his chance. The guard, a man named Murphy, was sleeping in the shade of the Sheriff's office.
The sun struck Enloe with its powerful heat, and he wondered if they were perhaps setting out on a useless quest. He figured Withers had probably already succumbed. He walked quickly up to the prison box and was surprised to see him still alive.
Withers lifted his head. His lips bled from ugly cracks created by the fists of Bobby Sikh, one of Smiley's roughnecks, Enloe thought. His face was white as the corpse of a drowned man, for there was little air inside the tiny iron box. He rested his chin upon the narrow ledge of the barred window and panted for air in painful gasps.
Enloe held the key to the box in hand. A crowbar.
"I'm fixing to take you out of there, Withers," Jim explained.
He studied the street then to see if anyone watched the rescue attempt. He saw that no one was watching. He wrenched the lock off the box with the crowbar, dropped it and the bar both in the dust, and swung the door open.
"Come out of there, man," he said.
But it soon became obvious that Withers could not climb out by himself. Enloe hauled him outside. Withers attempted to stand but fell instead. So Enloe picked him up and carried the man inside the jailhouse. He and the sheriff set him by the water bucket and allowed him to drink. Wells made sure he didn't drink too much too fast. In time, Wither's managed to reach his feet on his own. The sheriff led him to a cell and put him inside to watch over him in case Smiley sent in a team of gunmen to recover his property.
Dead showed up then, and they decided that they would go out to the Smiley ranch and see if they could free Mona Benson, for Withers claimed that the girl was locked up in one of the sheds out at the ranch for failing to give in to the big man's advances. The sheriff would stay at the jail to guard Withers. The two men, Dead and Enloe, mounted up and left the town of Scarlet in the baking heat of noonday to bring Mona home. Jim was suddenly stricken with a headache. He felt sure this was a bad day. He also knew that some days were just worse than others.
* * *
In sight of the elaborate gate leading up to Smiley's ranch house, Jim witnessed a large tribe of vultures at feast upon the small portion that remained of an unfortunate gambler by the name of Willis. When one of the feathered creatures shifted positions for a better point of attack, he caught a glimpse of Willis's bright red shirt, and this shot him full of pain for Jim knew him well. His only fault was to stay in a game long after he should have tossed in his cards. He had angered Smiley for some reason. Smiley killed him and had some of his men hang him from the front gate that led to his massive ranch house.
As the two riders approached the gate, scavengers that had been feasting on Willis's body took air with a loud whirr of wings. A few of the detached feathers drifted on the slight wind until they touched the ground at last, beneath the gate.
Enloe and Dead stopped beneath Willis's remains, which looked like nothing more than a small length of rags a group of women had ripped apart to create a quilt. A stench hung in the air, so strong it threatened to turn Jim's stomach wrong side out. He watched the old man's nose wrinkle too and felt relieved that no one but Dead could see his own look of disgust.
Nimbly, he stood up on his saddle to cut Willis down. Just as he snapped open the blade of his pocketknife, Tillman said, "Just what are you doing, boy?"
"I'll cut him down, Till. Ain't right to leave him up here."
"You got a shovel?"
"Leave him be then."
"It's not Christian, Till."
"If you don't have a shovel to bury him with, you better leave him up there."
"But the vultures," Jim protested.
The old-timer pointed to where the vultures strode upon the ground nearby, agitated and angered because of the interference of the two men.
"They'll get him anyway. Up there or on the ground. You don't intend to haul him around behind your saddle till we get back to Scarlet, do you? I hope not."
The old man was right, Jim figured, but he felt bad about it all the same.
"We come out here to fetch home the little Benson girl. As for me, I've just about had my fill of this old boy." Dead gestured toward Willis's woeful, ragged remains. "We'll have the coroner come out with his wagon and haul him in. We pay him to do such chores as this."
A few minutes later, Smiley's large, three-story house popped up off the floor of the prairie like magic. They halted to reconnoiter. Dead pointed out the church Smiley had built when he'd passed through some absurd religious phase. He pointed to the barns, and all the other buildings, which included the prison, where they hoped to find Mona Benson.
"They say that twisted sonsabitch held some right fine services in that church," Tillman said. "Course, I don't know that firsthand, and thank God."
This struck Jim speechless, and he wondered what might make a man go so far astray. Enloe rode alongside Dead at a trot. They rode through heat waves that stood out upon the earth before them like shallow pools of water that shimmered bright just like sunshine off a pool.
Jim kept his eyes in constant movement, in search of any sudden flash of color that might suddenly become a man with a gun.
Dead appeared to have eyes only for the windowless cabin used as a prison that held the Benson girl. The old man rode along in an exaggerated slouch.
"I just won't think of what that little girl's been through all these past months," Dead muttered. "Her such a young thing, too. We'll go there first . . . fetch her out of that hell house. Big Ed ain't a man to go off and leave the joint unguarded like it was open house, though. Bill Bolt's around here somewhere, I do believe."
Two hundred yards from the bunkhouse, they drew rein. Out in front, a man sat, all kicked back in a chair propped against the side of the bunkhouse, asleep, rifle across his lap.
Old man Dead raised a supple hand the color of coffee and pointed to the east end of the rough structure.
He muttered, "Go on off to the side there. I'll come at him straight on. We'll catch the bully-ruffian from two sides. See then how he likes it. We'll not give the booger any room to squirm."
Jim got up his horse, and rode at a fast trot toward the small, brushy gully he needed to cross in order to circle the bunkhouse.
Rocks and small stones rolled noisily from beneath the feet of his mount, and what with the swish and loud talk of the brush he disturbed, Jim felt certain the door guard would hear his approach. But as he climbed clear of the gully, he saw the guard still seated there, hard at his rest.
Tillman Dead had already advanced on the sleeping man. Enloe walked his horse up before the guard. He watched Tillman raise a hand for him to stand tight, saw him reach inside his vest and draw out a partially filled pint bottle of whiskey, and place it behind his back, wedged tight between his backbone and gun belt, out of his way. Many had watched Dead drink, but none had seen him so drunk he couldn't conduct his business.
Dead stepped with minimum effort from his horse, tossed the reins over a rail of the corral, and trod up silently until he stood before the guard who snored loudly away in his peace. Dead made sure his shadow didn't fall across the neglectful guard's face. He glanced at Enloe with a half-smile on his eggplant-colored face, drew his revolver, and slapped the side of the unlucky man's head with the barrel. The collision of metal upon hard bone created a loud smack in the silence of the lazy day. The guard fell into a deeper sleep, lost all rigidity, and slid sideways off the chair, where he leaned upright against the bunkhouse, chin at rest on his chest. Tillman squatted next to the man, took his Winchester, stood back up, and pitched it atop the bunkhouse out of reach.
The old man beckoned for Jack to dismount and approach.
"Sleeps peaceful, don't he?"
"Damned if he don't."
Dead turned toward the main house. Jim saw sunlight wink at him off the pint bottle as Tillman headed toward the massive ranch house.
Over a shoulder, Tillman said, "I might as well check out the house while we're at it. No telling what I'll find. Go on inside the bunkhouse. See if Mona's in there. If she is, get her on behind you, and get to hell out of here, posthaste."
"What about you, Till?"
"Don't fret about me. Now, get on, boy. Do what I told you."
Enloe watched Dead walk off as casually as if he were crossing the main street in Scarlet. At the steps, the old man uncorked his bottle, took a large hooker, and then put it back again.
He stopped when he reached the stage of the wraparound porch, turned, and saw Jim still rooted before the bunkhouse like a spectator. The old man fanned the air angrily with a hand for Enloe to get on with his chore.
Jim turned and lifted the heavy wooden bar from the door. He propped it against the outer wall and tugged at the door. It didn't give an inch. He tugged even harder, and soon felt a slow give of pressure. Presently, he heard a female voice frantically sobbing on the other side of the door.
"I'm a friend," he called out. "Jim Enloe, I've come to take you home."
"Stay away," she replied. She still held to the door with all her strength.
"Mona, I'm with Tillman Dead. I'm sure you know him. We've come for you."
Evidently, she didn't believe him, and the two continued the tug of war. The struggle created more of a ruckus than Jim thought. Presently he sensed someone behind him. He released the door, spun around, and grabbed for his revolver.
He was much too late on the grab and stood face-to-face with two men. Their guns were in hand, trained on his brisket.
"Go 'head on," said the nearer man through tobacco grimy teeth, "and reach for it. Might as well die now . . . like a man, in place of waiting around for Smiley to have a go at you. You'll wish then you had."
Enloe relaxed his grip on his pistol, aware it would be suicide to try to have at them while both men had the drop on him.
The second man, a tall, skinny fellow with teeth even worse than the first man's, stepped forward and disarmed him, then passed the gun to his superior, who immediately slipped it behind his belt buckle.
"What're we going to do now, Bill?"
Bill ignored the question, and said to Jim, "I see two horses but only one rider. Where's the other old boy?"
"I needed two horses."
"Bullshit," Bill said. "What for?"
"I planned to take the Benson girl home," he admitted.
The guard Dead knocked unconscious had reached his knees by now. He muttered and mumbled—all craziness.
Jim figured he didn't even know what county he voted in, if he voted that is, and this reminded him of his failure in the plan he and Dead had concocted. He should already have Mona Benson up behind him on his horse by now, headed back toward Scarlet.
If Bill had been alone, Jim felt confident he could have taken his gun from him. He'd pulled off the stunt before on meaner-looking customers than Bill. A slight show of misdirection, a quick left hand to latch onto the gun, a pivot of the toes, a right-hook to the jaw, the gun would be his, and Bill would be out cold. But with two of them-well, the odds were wrong. He let the thought die. This man, he figured, was Bolt.
Jim Enloe waited for whatever lay in store for him, resolved that if Bill Bolt even looked as if he were going to rap him with his pistol, he would do his best to tear the man's face off.
By and by, Bill turned to his sidekick. "Hunt up some rope. Might be some up at the big house. We'll tie him up for the time being."
The skinny man left for the ranch house, almost on tiptoes, as if he were sore afoot. He was one born to ride.
Jim watched Bill grow lax with his revolver. The man said, "I can't figure you, mister." He then stepped closer. Jim longed for him to step a little closer. Just one more step, he figured, and he'd drive his fist right on out the back of his skull.
Just as he planted his feet, and gathered his soul for the assault, the fellow Bill had sent on the errand stopped in his tracks.
"Bill," he cried out. "Somebody's in the house besides Lana and Jeff."
"What makes you think so?"
"Why, hell, the door's wide open. They always keep it shut except in the winter."
Just then, Jim heard two quick shots erupt from inside the house.
Tillman Dead had just run into trouble.
Bolt took two quick steps toward his pal, who by now, frightened by the unexpected gunfire, started in a lope back toward his partner.
Bill made a bad mistake when he turned to his partner and caught on too late. He tried to whirl back on Enloe to rectify his error.
The saloon owner this time was faster. He hit the man so hard behind the left ear that Bolt didn't even quiver but went down hard. A thick cloud of dust rose above him.
Enloe snatched the revolver out of the air, bent to the fallen man, recovered his own revolver, and stood confident, cocky now, with two guns in his fists to show his power.
The door guard, awake now, scurried in his fright to gain his feet, and when he did so, lit out for the deep, brushy gully Jim had ridden through earlier.
Jim raised Bill's pistol to shoot him but pulled back. The man was no threat now without a weapon, and probably would not have been much of one if he'd had a half-dozen. Not with the way he'd cut and run. He swung back around.
Slugs ripped up the soil at his feet by now, and small clods of dirt pelted his trousers legs like hail. He looked up from this spectacle and learned that Bill's pal had started firing at him from over his shoulder as he made tracks for the barn.
Jim snapped off three shots, and this stopped the jets of dirt from leaping up around his feet. Even though he did not hit him, the man had had enough. He threw in the fight and turned all his efforts to reaching the safety of the barn.
The ranch house, by now, sprang alive with a heavy barrage of gunfire. After ten explosions, Jim ceased his count.
He turned again to the bunkhouse door and yanked it hard. He'd expected Mona Benson still to be holding him out. Instead of meeting resistance, the door rushed back at him. He regained his balance quickly and plunged on inside.
"Mona," he called out.
He stopped just inside the door to gain his proper vision. It was unnaturally dark inside in contrast to the full blast of the sunshine outside. He scanned the room patiently, waiting for his vision to clear, and when it did, he found the room very much as Withers had described it, low bunks, a stove, water bucket on a shelf, not much more than this. He saw no places to hide out.
She charged him from an unseen place of concealment behind him. He grabbed her wrists, and the fear, pain, and hatred he saw on her face distressed him for a moment. Desperation had compelled her to charge a man of his size empty-handed.
Once more, he tried to reason with her, "Mona, please. I'm a friend. Listen to me."
They wrestled about the room while he attempted to get through to her. "Please, I'll take you home to your mam."
As soon as he spoke the word, "Mam," the girl fell limp, and would have fallen had he not held her erect.
She mumbled, "My mam?"
"Yes. I'm here to take you home." He explained as swiftly as possible the tight fix they were in, and how important it was for her to trust him.
She nodded and, for the first time, he paused to have a close look at the girl. It was true, just as Withers had told him. She in no way resembled a girl of fifteen. She truly must have gone through a hellish experience, locked up with scarcely enough food and water to exist. He got hot. As hot as he had been in his life.
"Let's go. Can you ride double with me?"
"Yes," she muttered.
He guided her to the door. When they stepped into the outdoor brilliance, she caught at her breath in noisy gasps, and covered her eyes against the glare of the sun.
The undersides of her forearms were covered with thick pads of sores that had healed, and others that were fresh and livid.
Her face, too, was a field of rank sores in varied stages, some old, some fresh, and her hair was thickly matted and filthy. He figured the bunkhouse was overrun with rats, bedbugs, and other vermin.
Fresh gunfire roared from inside the ranch house, and he feared for the old man's safety. He doubted if Tillman would emerge from such a gun battle all in one piece, and maybe not even alive.
He watched a man dive headfirst from the house, saw him land in the center of the porch, gather his feet beneath him, and flee down the steps.
This was not Tillman Dead, Enloe saw. He breathed a sigh of relief. The old man had held his own, at the very least.
The man caught a slug from behind just as he gained the yard, and slumped forward, cold dead, Jim figured.
A large woman soon followed the unfortunate gunman. The woman stood sky high, and privy wide. She backed slowly down the steps with a gun in each hand and fired them off in alternate blasts. Smoke lifted above her head like the nimbus of some angel fallen in disfavor from paradise.
Jim couldn't see who she was shooting at, but he had little doubt who it was.
The woman, he felt, was no shabby slouch in the guts department. She was a hellion trueborn.
She reached the yard and whirled about, caught air, and pulled foot for the barn.
Tillman Dead emerged from the house at a casual pace. Jim watched him snap off two shots at the woman, whose long black hair streamed out behind her like the tail of a racing-mare. He missed with each shot, and finally the gutsy woman gained the safety of the barn.
Tillman Dead reloaded his weapon, and then studied the barn, as if he thought he might just go ahead and storm it.
Enloe reckoned the barn would likely hold a good number of defenders, and a loud gait of gunfire issued steadily from the safety of the heavily timbered barn-fortress.
Dead finished his reload and took up his bottle and downed a drink.
Afterward, he sauntered back inside the ranch house as if he had all the time in the world.
Jim stood on hot coals of tension and wondered how much longer it would be until Dead finished with his mischief. He was eager to get off the property.
The old man returned later, bent over. He walked backward across the porch and down the steps, pouring a steady stream of some sort of liquid out of a five-gallon demijohn from which he'd knocked off the neck to allow a smoother, faster flow.
"Kerosene," Jim mumbled. The girl was silent alongside him but clung to his elbow.
Dead proceeded down the steps. He poured the kerosene from the demijohn in a long trail. When the container ran dry, he tossed it aside, drew out the whiskey bottle, and took another pull, then tucked it away again. He scratched a match, dropped it upon the long combustible trail of kerosene, and strode back toward the bunkhouse with full contempt for his safety.
Clouds of dust leapt from the ground all around the old man's feet. The rattle of gunfire from the barn bounced off the ranch house in a steady echo, with two voices.
Dead continued his carefree stroll toward the bunkhouse, as if he were out for his evening constitutional. Behind Tillman, Jim saw the fire trail Dead had ignited flash on up the steps, cross the wide porch and penetrate the house. Flames licked up the outside walls, crackled industriously, sizzled, spit and hissed with a loud nervous energy.
Enloe lifted Mona up into the saddle, ready now to mount up behind her. He thought to fetch Dead's horse to him as the old man seemed to be in no great rush. But his animal threw high its head and rolled its eyes in fear.
Enloe swung about in time to see Bolt rush him, the bar used to lock up the bunkhouse clutched in his hands, raised overhead as a club.
Jim threw up a forearm and deflected the blow. The bar caromed off his arm and fetched him a right smart lick that set up a fierce burn and severe tingle in his arm.
He hit the man hard, three times with his fist, watched him fall in a heap, and then leapt up on the horse behind the girl. He grabbed for the reins of Tillman Dead's horse in the same motion, but instead he found the old man already mounted up.
Dead dug in his spurs, and Jim struck out behind him. None too soon to suit the barman, they caught air in hot abandonment of that hellish den of no-good.
He cast eyes back over a shoulder. Fierce flames sprang forth in ragged tongues through the windows and doors of the big house, and the brave army, which had defended the barn so honorably, made a slow appearance. The men stood idly about, as the fire ate up the house, too smart at least to attempt to fight the conflagration, for, by now, it had broken free of the interior of the building from every opening. It sucked hard at the air and created a tremendous roar like a beast that had suffered a horrible and killing injury.
Nothing now, short of a miraculous downpour, could extinguish those flames. Jim Enloe figured that Big Ed Smiley had never performed a solitary deed to qualify him the grant of a miracle, so the house was surely doomed.
They ran through the hot winds and passed beneath the tragic remains of the hanged gambler in a windy blast.
Enloe hoped the girl had not had time to figure out what hung there by its neck like a scarecrow someone had forgotten and left out to turn to tatters.
They passed from sight of the arched-over gate, the twice-disturbed vultures, and the grisly remains of their meal, and then the riders slowed to a walk to give their horses a good blow in case they needed to make a hasty side-trip through the brush. If Smiley and his entourage happened to ride up on them, it would then be prudent to have rested animals.
"What kept you?" said the old man.
Dead stopped his animal, and stood up, one foot at rest in a stirrup. He tugged out papers and tobacco and rolled a smoke. "You should be back in town by now, mister." He lit his smoke and cut Jim down with a withering stare from his fierce, raptor's eyes.
Suddenly Jim's headache fired up again. "I ran into a few problems."
Dead eased back down into the saddle. "I gave you the easiest chore, boy. Damned if you didn't go off first thing and screw that up."
"Some days are just worse than others, Till," said the saloonkeeper.
Dead scowled at the answer, reached then, and produced his bottle, but found it empty. He studied it forlornly for a time, then flung into the brush. For any damned fool knew there was nothing more useless than an empty liquor bottle. "Let's get," he said in an urgent command. "I'm so dry I can't even whistle."
By the time they reached Scarlet, Jack's horse was spitting thick foam into the air that looked like calf slobbers, and foam boiled up from beneath each piece of leather that touched the hide of the good animal.
When they came in sight of her home, Enloe said, "You see Mona, I told you we'd take you home."
"Yes sir," she said. "I see now that you did."
Dead took the girl inside and later her father came out the door and thanked Jim with all his heart as he likely had Dead in the house. He invited him inside to join the celebration. Jim turned down the offer. He figured this was a private affair that he had no business interfering in.
Later, he and Dead struck out back toward the Sheriff's office. "Now, if we can rid the county of Big Ed Smiley," Tillman Dead said, "we'll all be better off.
"Yessir," Enloe said. But he knew that this too would be no easy chore. But at least now his headache had subsided.