A rancher, Devon Killcross, and a few hired hands find an unarmed man on their range where a steer had been killed and butchered. Killcross, self-designated judge and jury, decides the man is guilty and should be hanged on the spot.
The rancher orders two of his men to hang the convicted man and as they approach the stranger he draws a weapon from a shoulder holster, kills one of the two men, and shoots Killcross in the leg.
After a scuffle, they hang the man on a nearby tree. Later, in town, Killcross lies about the incident, twists events to suit his satisfaction and vanity, with the law of the land in vogue. He arranges for the body to be buried on boot hill with no marker except for the initials he had seen on the hanged man's saddle, WD, in a script worn but legible.
The other man that Killcross ordered to hang the stranger leaves Killcross's employ and goes elsewhere, down river or beyond the mountain.
A few years later a young man comes into town without a weapon visible, finds Killcross in the saloon, stands over him at his table, and says, in a soft, determined voice, "One of our siblings sent me to tell you he is coming to get you for hanging our father, Wilfred Dunne, the man with the initials WD on his saddle, like out there on boot hill. Do you remember him?"
"He killed one of my men after he killed one of my cows. He shot me. Is that who he was, Wilfred Dunne, that saddle bum?" Killcross's face sat like a broken egg partially scrambled in a skillet, jowls flaccid, nose scrunched in one spot like it had been broken by a punch, and skin complexion of dead cactus. Some of his men shivered looking at him, so many never looked him in the eye, afraid of the giveaway. It was good for Killcross's vanity, that personal avoidance.
"You intended right from the start to hang the first stranger you saw and it happened to be our father. You killed him for something he didn't do."
"How do you know he didn't kill my steer? We're the law out here," Killcross said as he rubbed his nose like a fighter in a fighting match, a top hand's gesture, or the boss's.
Across the room, an old timer, Honus Batterfield, shook his head at the known gesture, felt sorry for the big rancher who had gone down the wrong trail too many years ago to get back on the right one.
The young stranger said, "Yes, just like how do you know he did the killing?"
"What's your brother look like so I don't get shot in the back? We'll turn the law on him."
"Like you turned the law on our father?"
"You didn't answer me, what's he look like?" An initial nervousness was noticed in Killcross's voice.
"He looks something like me," the sharp young man said leaving the saloon.
In the back of the room, Batterfield weighed the words and their delivery and knew the rancher had a surprise coming his way sooner or later. Perhaps all the people in the saloon at that time were in for a surprise.
Several months later, in the dead of night, July, 1866, the Great War supposedly over for all combatants, a fire starts at Killcross's barn and it burns to the ground.
Two nights later, a stretch of Killcross's fence is uprooted for a long stretch and dynamite is set off behind his herd, stampeding the herd through the fence break. It takes Killcross's crew a week to bring the herd together again.
Killcross is irate, bent on killing whoever has caused him harm in any manner; the consequences promise to be deadly.
Nobody is seen in the area, on Killcross property, no strangers seen thereabouts for weeks, and no sure tracks found near the fence to follow.
A week later, when a stranger enters Wrangler's Saloon in Peer's Point, Iowa, on July 28, late afternoon sun leaning into the room through two wide windows and the door kept open with a brick, the piano player stopped playing, the blackjack dealer stilled his hands in mid-air, the bartender slowed the next beer to half full in its mug, and Maggie Juridic, owner, knew someone special had entered her establishment.
She thought for a moment that she was old enough to be his mother, and discarded the thought in a hurry. He was young, but more than just a handsome young man in his early twenties. Cora D., working the room for her for almost five years, looked up and stared at him and Maggie saw that stare begin. Maggie, at that precise moment, read Cora D.'s mind as it seemed to say she'd give anything in her power to be his age again, meet him at the edge of town before he fell into the hands of who and what might bring him down, man or woman. Peer's Point had already been the death knell for a number of good young men caught up in some of life's frenzy. Several crimes had never been solved, the sheriff finding all kinds of obstacles tossed in ahead of his investigations, almost as if they were concurrent in the initial processes.
In light of all circumstances and incidents, Cora D. was a barometer of sorts for Maggie, telling Maggie things without being aware of it herself.
Even at that, Cora D. was a most sympathetic person in Maggie's eyes as they shared so much of the hard life, and had missed so much of what each of them considered to be the good life, perhaps dreamed too often, but the good life— a woman having a good husband she loved from one day to the next and who also loved her, a couple of adorable children, three or four hundred acres of good grass with water, a favorable amount of cattle, and a stable of horses to run a good ranch. Utopia, each had admitted on a few occasions, had passed them by someplace out on the road when they had closed their eyes for the merest second—perhaps a mote of dust settling the future for them, a face not seen at the crucial moment, a deed gone unobserved when it would have changed life had it been seen, a sincere pulsing of the heart for the other road that might have been theirs to travel.
The young newcomer practically shined in his clothes as though he'd never ridden drag on a cattle drive or never been caught in a sand storm on the fringe of a desert. Maggie'd bet a dollar to a dime he had soft hands, hands that did not know a pitchfork or a rope tossed onto a big horn or a wild mustang, or the accidental touch of a hot rifle barrel in the midst of a range war. He was, she said to herself, too pretty to be dangerous, too handsome for his own good. It was an honest cause for worry to the saloon owner who had seen too much of short lives.
But the stranger was still a good-looking young man possibly at the crux in life where a decision might change the whole run, he was headed for, the way life had changed for Cora D. and herself.
The handsome stranger completely ignored other men in the room, including a cowpoke at the bar who looked like he had been three days riding drag, needed a bath desperately, but had taken a few drinks instead, the path of the drover at trail's end, his hard-earned money spilling from his cup.
The flashy young stranger, uncoiling from the bar with a confident guile in movement, subtle, almost languorous, walked to Killcross's table, stood over him, and said, in a voice much softer than expected, "Did you ever hear of a man whose name was Wilfred Dunne? Had his initials on his saddle. WD."
He appeared as an adolescent suddenly come into an older man's world.
But there was no fright in his approach, standing with no weapon over the big-shot rancher, a certain flair in his stance, bravado in a different package.
The saloon, end to end, went silent.
Maggie also noticed at the same time the hard eyes of the man at the next table who was sizing up the young arrival. "So-Far" Hickey, another new visitor in town, was a recent hire of Killcross's, a hired gun the fashion of the day in some quarters. He was as mean looking as a viper in the corner of a cave, his hat sitting down over one eye as though that eye had already picked out a new target but was not about to give it away.
She remembered what Batterfield had said about him only a few days earlier. "So-Far Hickey's quick with decisions, quick with his guns, quick to pick out a target worth drawing into a duel. Friends told me about him more'n a whole year ago, down past the Pelham settlement. Said it's like he needs the sudden pleasure that wells up in him thinkin' about a gun duel. A match of wits and speed comes high on his scale. On the other end of it, he never gives a thought to a man's courage or the lack of it; how the make-up of a man no way fits into the scheme of a duel. He's never lost a duel and doesn't figure to lose one in any hurry. He's 38 years old and considers himself untouchable in a duel, a survivor on for the long haul. Keep your eye on him whenever you can, for yourself and those you care for."
She could have measured the intensity in the old man's voice, and he'd been around Peer's Point longer than any man in the room. If anybody was the old man of the mountain, it was Batterfield who hadn't said that he'd heard Hickey had killed 8 or 9 men in draw-downs. He figured he might have already spoiled Maggie's day.
Killcross's day, though, was evidently turned on its edge, for he looked directly at So-Far Hickey, his eyes settling into the eyes of his new hire, seeking rescue or retribution for a remark of slight inference.
Hickey moved but an inch in his seat, his gun hand lightly grasping the handle of his Colt and pulling it slowly from the holster, but the cold and ominous steel of another Colt flashed against his neck sharp as the prick of a cactus thorn. The second Colt promising action in the saloon was in the hands of the cowpoke who looked like he'd been the drag rider behind 1000 head of cattle, but his hand was as steady as his voice.
"Don't go no further, mister. You drew on a young'un with no weapon, and in Peer's Point as well as the whole damned State of Texas where we all come from, that's a crime to be stopped by any means. This Colt is my means, so slip that one back where it come from and tell your boss over there that you quit his job and you're going to leave Peer's Point and never come back here or to the entire State of Texas. That's never again. We'll be waiting in both places for you, for a gent who drew down on a defenseless young lady 18 for just a day and her with no weapon on her person."
Silence came again to the Wrangler's Saloon, a stunned silence that sat across the whole room like a giant mushroom, capping it all, had snuffed out every sound.
Maggie, in quick reaction, reflected back on her own immediate thoughts and knew that some little clue had escaped her observation. "Too pretty" hadn't been enough. Then she noticed, for the first time, the slight push against the young stranger's shirt. She realized the delicate balance of the young lady, from the inside. She wondered if Cora D. had also been as surprised as she was.
The men at the bar all spun about in their places to get a look at the lass 18 for hardly a day, and every man seated in the saloon slid his chair back and stood to get a look. Not a single gasp was heard. No one coughed at his own surprise. In a far corner, having his noon meal, Peer's Point sheriff Norman Plumbs shook his head in amazement: Killcross was obviously getting his due, or soon would get it.
It was high time.
Wendy Dunne, celebrating her 18th birthday the day before, doffed her band-studded Stetson and shook her hair loose, a whole mass of blonde tresses that shone with the light of a gorgeous June moon high in the western sky. It was a dazzling sight for even the most insensitive man in the Wrangler's Saloon, coming with a grand surprise. The many old timers, including Honus Batterfield, were enthralled with the bravado of the young lady as well as her suddenly revealed looks. Admiration welled up in each one of them wondering what life might have been like if . . . If . . . If that other road had been taken, the one that Maggie and Cora D. knew from the wrong end.
So-Far Hickey was escorted from Peer's Point at the point of a rifle bore close enough to slow him down if he tried to escape. Accompanying him on his ride out of town were three other Dunne siblings, one of them repeatedly saying, "Hickey, you don't want any part of that man who's going to get the wrath of God come down upon him, not for a few dollars a month that won't get you very far if things do or don't go our way. Killcross murdered our father and the Devil is his due. Believe me, he ain't worth your pay or your time."
Hickey said, "If I ever come across you . . . "
He didn't get to finish his threat when the answer came back. "We learned our lesson from our Pa's killing. You saw that in the saloon. We ain't ever alone. We travel close by each other. If you think me or a brother, or our kid sister, is ever alone, don't believe it. When we Dunnes get together there's a whole passel of us. We all came west from Tennessee, the whole mountain of us. And we're all standing by to make sure no business we don't favor happens. Our Pa was killed when he was on his way to help an old comrade. That puts his murder in glory's frame the way we see it. You best see it that way too." The young Dunne said, as a parting word, "If you ever come looking for me, better know my name. I'm Wulf Dunne, one of the sons of Wilfred Dunne."
A day alone on the trail, Texas far away, cussing and cursing as he rode along, Hickey decided he had gone too far on his way and abruptly turned back. To make amends. To get even. To quiet his noisy vanity continually whispering to him. The name of Wulf Dunne burned in his mind, along with the bright eyes of Wendy Dunne and her silky white complexion.
The following evening, without incident of any kind on his return, Hickey was at Killcross's ranch. He said to Killcross, "I didn't come back so much for you, though I took your pay up front and will earn it, but I can't shake that scene in the saloon. I'm going to get some of them Dunnes. You got one of them, but I'll get my share."
He paused, and then said with conviction, "I'll take care of that little lady with the big eyes before I'm through, and in my own way."
Killcross, smiling, flexing his fingers as though grasping a gun or the end of a rope, said, "Your pay's doubled, starting now and any way you get it done is fine by me. Any way." He had lit up his homely face with his own array of images, all deadly.
Hickey had one request. "Send a man into town to see if they're still around or, if they left, find out which direction they left in, or better, find out if they said where they're going." He patted his Colt in its holster.
"My man'll be there in an hour," Killcross said, rubbing his hands together, the awful glee spilling across his face again. Even So-Far Hickey saw all the irony in it.
Maggie Juridic had her special sources of information in the town beside Honus Batterfield. One cowpoke, owing long favors to Maggie, knocked lightly at her door above the saloon late at night, after he had curled up in a storage room for hours.
Maggie knew the knock and opened the door. "What now, Dutch?" she said as she let him into the room.
"One of Killcross's men rode into town this evening and's nosing around, looking for information about any of the Dunnes and where they are and where they're headed if they've left town. He's kind of skittery about it 'cause Killcross'd kill him if he gave anything away."
"Thanks, Dutch," she said. "You better stay here for the night and go out with the morning crowd. We won't let Killcross in on our secrets, will we?"
In surprise, he said, "You mean I can stay here with you?"
"No surprise there, Dutch. You've been good to me before. It's my turn now." She took his hand and enticed him.
Dutch went out with the morning activity, and Maggie had her horse brought around from the livery by one of her minions. It was not unusual for her to take a morning ride out on the grass.
Once out of town, away from any observer, Maggie lit out for the hills, and went right to Batterfield's small cabin in the forested foothills. She'd been here before a few times and had told one of the Dunnes where they could hang out in safety until they left the area. "Honus is a friend of mine," she had offered, "and he'll keep watch for you. He doesn't miss a trick. Hickey, as far as Honus knows, is untrustworthy and a killer to boot." She felt no complicity in her designs, Killcross being one of her least favorite people in the entire west, and she had developed a sudden admiration for Wendy Dunne and her siblings.
Hickey, hearing the Dunnes had left town for who-knows-where, rode into Peer's Point in the brightness of day and spent an hour or so in the saloon listening to all the chatter around him. His interest centered on hearing that Maggie Juridic had taken a ride that morning over two hours long. He deemed it puzzling for a business woman, with her holdings, taking such time away from her place. He correctly assumed it had something to do with him and the Dunnes. With that in mind, he said to one man at the bar, "I know where them Dunne folks went and are waiting for me, but I got a big secret comin' for them. Yes siree, I sure do, but don't you tell anybody. Hear?"
When Hickey left town, heading west, he turned due north when he was about a mile away and lay up in a copse of thick cotton woods. Two hours later he saw the rider coming across the grass and knew it was Maggie Juridic. All he had to do was trail her tracks and she'd lead him to the Dunnes like a big mouth bass grabbing off a frog on a lily pad. If he planned it right, one devastating gulp would do it all in, and then he'd have his fun.
Staying back, his apt eye on the tracks Maggie was leaving, he climbed into the lower foothills, smelled the smoke of a cooking fire, and took his horse into another thickness of trees to tie him off. He kept mostly hidden by brush or small copses of trees as he followed the trail, now a simple effort on his part.
The cabin was on a small rise, surrounded by grass and open space. He nodded in admiration for whoever had laid it out, tough to get near in the daylight, probably just as hard in the darkness with no lights in the cabin and a dark tree line standing behind it stiff as sentinels.
He spent most of the early evening planning how he'd get in there to get a few of the Dunnes in a hurry . . . and make his problem easier to solve, and saw the sun begin to tip its cap to the taller peaks further west in the great mountain range. He decided to walk in on them in the dark, wearing Indian moccasins from his saddlebag, carrying two Colts in his hands and a rifle slung over his shoulder, the way he'd worn it at Shiloh and other places before the Confederacy had come apart.
The moccasins felt comfortable though strange on his feet, and he was glad he wasn't mounted for a charge. The sun, in magic reflections, bounced and percolated on the myriad peaks, and soft shadows in parts began to crawl into the lower regions of the foothills, like a sneaky animal prowling for town food tossed into the garbage pit.
Hickey recalled the light in the eyes of the young Dunne and the smooth skin on her cheekbones. He'd keep every shot away from her, and if it went that way, he'd get payback on the Dunnes, on all of them, no matter how many were dead or dying but her.
He looked over the entire scene around the cabin, saw nothing out of the way, settled back to wait total darkness, no moon in the offing. A soft breeze carried the evening meal in its midst, and he detected bread and beef and sweet pie in the mix. In one instant of reflection, he remembered a meal so far back it had disappeared for years; on the family farm, him coming back from a long hunt, hunger eating at him, and from a few miles away knew his mother's cooking. It took him in one quick essence to a meal on the line with his cavalry comrades, none of them knowing calamity was at hand.
He shook off immediate doubts, and reset himself. Darkness would soon come on in its way, slow and sure, as steady as time itself.
He had the upper hand in this matter, of that there was no doubt. The pistols felt perfect in his hands, warm, friendly, powerful; he was back where he belonged, on the prowl for Johnny Blue, taking them out one at a time, from up close or from a rifle's distance.
One shadow lengthened itself and fell at the foot of the cabin, waiting to take over the scene, the open grass, the approach to the Dunnes hidden away from his brand of justice.
So-Far Hickey had come so far on this trip, had things nearly in his grasp, vengeance surmounting all burning in him, that he never heard a sound behind him. But there was the click of a rifle; it sounded as ominous as it could be, and close enough that a lousy shot from it would still land somewhere in his body.
And a voice came with it. "Don't even breathe," the voice said, and added with a chuckle, "you've gone too far this time, So-Far. Too far. This far's enough for now. Them Dunne boys never told you there was a few others on their side, did they? Drop your pistols. Unsnap that rifle and let it fall. Don't turn around or you're dead. And don't turn when you hear the first shot, 'because that'll be me signaling them in the cabin that there's a mite bit of trouble out here. Temporary-like. They'll be here in a hurry, all of 'em, and that shot's going off at the side of your head right about now."
The rifle shot sounded in Hickeys ears, bounced around in his head, made him dizzy trying to see if he had been hit by the bullet. His legs wobbled, a tingle began in one arm, his shoulder still felt the strap where the rifle had been toted, but no sense of real pain came to him except the noise in his head. He did not come out of it for a few minutes, his ears ringing, the shot reverberating like a cannon had gone off in his head like a god-awful sound, the way walls break down, let loose debris' clutter. And hurried noises, bustling and scrambling broke out at the cabin.
Eventually, the cannon silenced a bit, no bullet pulsing anywhere in his body, Hickey said to the voice behind him, "Who the hell are you, mister? I don't know I ever did anything to you."
"Honus Batterfield's the name, So-Far, and you plain bother the hell out of me with the road you took in this here life. I been sittin' here for hours watchin' you come along the way, makin' decisions, makin' plans, stayin' hid all the time, all while I'm practically lookin' down your throat from the wrong end." He chuckled again at that comment and enjoyed nudging Hickey with his rifle as he brought the thought to a grand conclusion. "You get the picture, don'tcha?"
The Dunnes, five of them, circled Hickey and Batterfield in a hurry, carrying side arms or rifles, surprise on their faces at seeing Hickey at the point of a rifle, his weapons on the ground, and old Honus Batterfield smiling a huge grin in the soft shadows that had fallen about them.
Wulf Dunne said, "I didn't think he'd swallow the bait, Honus, and you pegged the animal he is all the way. You, my man, are the man of the mountain, the man of the hour."
In his best western voice, Honus Batterfield, almost as old as the mountain, said, "'Tweren't nothin'."
The laughter burned right through Hickey like flame itself.
He was led to the cabin where he found the table set for the supper meal. Savory aromas slipped through the air and some fled out into the foothills. A place was made for Hickey at the end of one table. The only talk was from the youngest Dunne, Wendy, who said, "I'll serve everybody like Ma used to do, so sit still, all of you."
She walked around the room, paused at the stove to check some element of the meal, babbling all the while.
"I don't suppose you know, Hickey, that Killcross put up half the $2000 bounty that's on your head now for a gent found dead on the trail right where Wulf let you go on your way. They even have a witness that said he saw you kill an old man out there. Killcross said he doesn't want your kind of man in our town. Those are his exact words. I suppose you killed that old man for what the Dunnes did to you."
A bit of change arose in her voice that caught Honus Batterfield's attention, but not that of anybody else in the tight quarters of the small cabin.
The pretty thing with the lovely blonde hair and the skin like ivory came around the table and said, "Here's how mad the Dunnes are at you." With that she slammed a log from the wood box down on top of So-Far Hickey's gun hand that idled on the tabletop. Half of the men in the room jumped in their places. Batterfield did not jump, for he had seen her pick up the log and walk away from the stove, and Hickey didn't jump up, but slumped in place as he screamed at the pain in his busted-up gun hand.
When they let him go on the next morning, his gun hand bandaged and in a sling, his empty Colt was in his holster on his gun belt, set up for a left-handed draw in reverse. He was not much of a threat anymore.
The Dunnes were sitting around talking after Hickey was let loose. Wulf said, "What makes you think he's going back there, Honus, as soon as he gets some ammunition?"
"That man's bounden on goin' there, I swear on the whole mountain. There ain't nothing else he wants to do. He knows he ain't gettin' none of us, so he's goin' there to fix what's ailing him right now."
Killcross, on his porch, sees Hickey slowly approaching on his mount. Then he notices the sling that's holding his right arm close to his chest. Somebody somewhere had caught up to his one-time hired gun. It was good he made a declaration that he was rid of the man: except here he was paying him a visit. Killcross wondered if he owed him any money. If he did, he'd pay him and get rid of him in a hurry.
Hickey, dismounting clumsily, said, "I hear you don't want me on the payroll anymore. That's okay with me, and I'm all paid up except for one small thing."
With that uttered in a firm voice he made a clumsy and hasty left-handed reverse draw of his Colt and shot Devon Killcross as he started to rise in surprise. The rancher felt the bullet hit him in the chest and knew he was going to die.
Two of Killcross's men, working on the grounds, shot Hickey before he could swing his Colt on them.
Devon Killcross and So-Far Hickey were buried side by side on boot hill, close to Wilfred Dunne, who had a plain WD on his wooden cross.