The afternoon wind had been kicking up dust on the prairie all day long, making the air dry, and the rider thirsty. He entered town noting the way faces poked out of windows or turned to watch him. This was a ranching community, off the main trail, with little to draw outsiders to it.
A sign hanging over the saloon, its letters faded from the high-desert sun, promised rooms to rent and meals. He stopped there, swinging off his horse and undoing his saddlebags. He put them over his shoulder, keeping his gun hand free.
He walked cautiously into the saloon, seeing a bar, a potbellied stove, and a couple of tables. Standing tall, his eyes scanned the place and the people, looking for a twitch that might mean someone was going for a gun.
Behind the bar, a smallish man looked up at him, sizing him up, likely wondering if he'd need to reach for the shotgun he'd have close by behind the bar.
Justin gave the man a friendly smile. "Whiskey," he said.
Over at the far table, under the window, a pretty, dark-haired woman he figured to be nineteen or twenty sat playing solitaire and chatting with some young buck who stared at her intently.
"Anything else?" the man behind the bar asked.
Justin turned back and saw the shot in front of him. "I hope so." He pulled a gold coin out of his pocket and tapped it on the bar. "I've been on the trail for a while now. I need another drink, and I'll want a meal and a room for the night."
The man scooped up the coin. "I'm sure we can oblige you." He reached under the bar and pulled out a glass and a bottle of whisky. "Ella," he called. "We got a boarder. You got enough food on?"
"A big pot of stew is cooking," she said. "There's plenty for everyone."
"Looks like we got you taken care of mister . . . " he glanced at Justin, his eyes asking him to finish the sentence.
"Name's Justin," he said.
The man's eyes flickered with some emotion.
He noted that the saloon girl, who had been heading into the kitchen, had stopped still for just a second at the sound of his name, frozen there long enough for him to think it meant something to her. That would be odd. He'd never been here before. But when you were known as a gunman, made your living collecting bounties, you got a reputation and that was based as much on gossip as what you'd actually done.
He finished the drink and put the glass back down in front of the barman. "And what's your name?" he asked.
"Oren," he said, pulling the cork out and refilling the glass. "Be staying with us long?"
"A couple of days."
"You got business here?"
It was an innocent enough sounding question. "No sir. I don't have any business here. Just need to rest."
Oren's eyes narrowed. "We are out of the way for a man traveling anywhere."
"Seems like that would depend on where a man started from and where he was headed."
Oren gave him a thin smile. "That'd be true enough."
Justin jerked a thumb. "I left Abilene, heading straight across New Mexico to Silver City. My horse thinks this is the shortest route unless he's lying to me again."
"You ain't a miner," Oren said.
"No sir, but I have some business with miners." He laughed. "Look, I've been traveling a long time and me and my horse need a rest." He jerked a thumb toward the door. "That reminds me, can you see he's looked after?"
Oren nodded and turned toward the young man. "Billy, get off your duff and take the man's horse over to Jimmy at the stables."
Justin nodded his thanks, but the young man shot him a dark look, before heading out the door.
"He doesn't like me," Justin said.
"It ain't you. Billy hangs around, claiming he wants work, but when I give it to him, he gets all out of sorts. He's too good to work and just wants an excuse to be around Ella."
Billy came back in, wordlessly heading straight for the seat he'd been in before.
Ella came out of the back, wiping her hands on a towel. "Food will be ready soon," she said. "Let me show you your room."
"That sounds great," he said. Grabbing up his saddlebags, he followed her up the stairs to a small room. He tossed his gear on the bed as Ella opened the shades.
Her eyes lingered on him. "So you are a gunfighter?"
"When I have to be."
She waited as if she expected to say something, turning sideways in the doorway. "You going to be needing anything else, Mr. Justin?" she asked, flicking her tongue over her lips.
"Well, Ella, not right now," he said.
Her seductive smile faded into a grin. "Then later on." She left, closing the door behind her.
He poured water from the pitcher into the basin and washed the desert sand off his face and hands. The room was over the kitchen and the smells rising up made him realize he was hungry. He hoped she was a good cook. As a saloon girl, cooking wouldn't be her only job. And she was tempting. But Billy probably wouldn't like her taking care of some of her other chores and, while Billy wasn't a threat, it didn't pay to cause trouble.
By the time he came downstairs, Ella was serving Billy a bowl of stew and bread. Oren was eating his standing behind the bar. "Sit down and I'll bring yours right out," Ella said. She straightened. "Mind if we chat while you eat?"
"I never mind the company of a pretty woman," he said.
Billy grabbed Ella by the arm and pulled her close, his voice a hoarse whisper. "I can take care of it."
Ella pulled back, glaring at him. "Well, Billy, all this time, and you never done nothing but talk. Not one damn thing."
Billy recoiled, letting her go.
She moved away from him, flashing Justin a big smile as if nothing had happened. When she returned from the kitchen, she gave him a big bowl of stew and some bread. "Need another drink?" she asked.
"That sounds fine," he said.
She went to the bar and Oren silently handed her a bottle and a glass that she brought to his table. She leaned forward as she poured him a drink, then took a seat.
The stew was fine, and he didn't mind her watching him eat. When Oren went into the back and Billy busied himself slurping up stew, Ella put a hand on his arm.
"I thought you'd never get here," she whispered. "I didn't know if you even got my letter."
Justin scowled. "What letter?"
"Will it happen fast? No sense in wasting time, I expect."
Justin shook his head. "I'm sorry, Ella, but I don't know what you are talking about."
"Ain't you Justin, the hired gun?"
"I'm Justin and I'm a gunfighter, no question."
"You kill men for bounties."
"That's why I sent for you."
Before he could ask what was going on, a slender man wandered in, a shotgun cradled in the crook of his arm and a star on his vest.
Ella started at the sight of him. "Hello, Sheriff Miller."
"This here is Justin."
"So I heard. And I need to talk to this fella, privately."
She leaned close to Justin's ear. "I'm glad you came."
The sheriff sat. "Have a drink, sheriff?" Justin asked.
"This ain't a social call. I came to say that I got an eye on you . . . gunfighter."
"Well, I'm not clear on what you think my line of work is exactly. Sometimes I assist law enforcement apprehend criminals and get paid for that."
"What criminal are you looking for here?"
Justin sat back. "No one."
"I suppose just now you and Ella was just being sociable."
"I didn't get a chance to find out how sociable she might be willing to be before you interrupted us."
"Were you looking for someone in Boulder?"
"The rancher you killed up there wasn't wanted by the law."
Justin shook his head. "I was in Abilene, not Boulder."
"A young rancher had a dispute with another man, a man who had the money it takes to hire a gunfighter. Then a man named Justin showed up and provoked the young man, riled the fella up so he went for a gun in front of witnesses. Of course, the kid was no match for a gunfighter. Left behind a wife and kid."
"I haven't been in Boulder in years."
"So you say. Boulder Sheriff there thinks different. And now you stop here." His eyes narrowed. "I'm thinking Ella sent for you, Justin."
"To kill a man."
Justin laughed. "If she has a beef with someone, I know nothing about it. Besides, where does a saloon girl get the money to hire a gunman?"
Sheriff Miller shook his head. "After getting paid in Boulder, you might not mind stopping to do a little job that paid off in something besides money."
Justin sighed. "That sounds all logical, but it isn't true."
Miller leaned back and chewed over Justin's protest. "Then we just owe your presence to good luck?"
"I might be glad I stopped, after all."
"How's that?" Sheriff Miller asked.
"I was looking for a rest but now I'm thinking of staying. If a killer is using my name, I need to stop him."
The sheriff wrinkled his nose. "So now you are looking for someone?"
"He's using my name."
The sheriff still scowled, but he was relaxing. "You swear you didn't come to avenge her brother?"
"The name Henry Clayton mean anything to you?"
He puckered his lips, thinking. "No, can't say it does."
The sheriff rocked back in his chair again, arms crossed. "Ella's parents owned a spread outside of town. They died a while back and she and her brother couldn't pay the taxes. Henry, who owns the store, bought it up."
"The kids felt cheated."
Miller's eyebrows arched. "They might have been, too, but there isn't much a soul can do about it, with everything being legal and proper."
"If not fair."
The sheriff winced slightly. "Randy, the brother, got a job on another ranch. Ella came into town, looking for something different. When Randy found out she was working as a saloon girl, his hurt turned into serious hate. At some point, he decided that Henry arranged the whole thing."
"Hate does that."
"One night, Randy got himself a snootful and confronted Henry, pulled a gun on him. Henry's no gunfighter, but the boy was drunk, and Henry can shoot straight. Witnesses swore Randy drew on him, but Ella was crazy mad and wanting revenge."
"So when you heard a hired gun was in town you decided she sent for him."
He shrugged. "She already tried to convince every man in town she could make killing Henry worth their while."
Justin held up his hands. "I'm only here to rest."
The sheriff nodded. " If anything happens to Henry while you are here, I'll shoot you down where you stand. Understand me?"
Justin nodded. "I should be able to behave myself for a couple of days."
The sheriff nodded, then got to his feet. "All right."
As he ambled out, Billy came over and sat, glaring at Justin. "We need to talk," he said.
Justin didn't like his sour expression. "Do I have to have a heartfelt talk with everyone in town before I get left alone?" he asked.
"I heard what you said to the sheriff."
"I don't want you killing Henry. He is mine." Justin laughed and anger flared in the boy's face.
"People keep telling me not to kill Henry. I keep agreeing not to."
"You think I believe you would come all the way here and now you aren't gonna kill him?"
Justin shook his head. "Son, I'm not a paid killer. I'm a gunfighter."
Billy let out a breath. "Good. I'll do it. Avenge her brother."
"She needs a friend who will tell her to look at the future and forget what's done. Maybe you could try being him."
Billy sat up straight, his eyes flashing. "Mister, you don't understand her at all. You don't understand me at all."
"Killing isn't going to—"
Billy jumped up. "Just stay out of my way."
With that, the boy stomped out.
Oren shook his head. "That poor boy's thinking so much about getting in with that girl it's knocked his common sense out cold."
"Speaking of which . . . " Justin stood and picked up the bottle. "I'm calling it a night."
Oren smiled. "Should I round up Ella? I think she's in the kitchen."
He considered it, but the night was already too complicated, and he was tired. "No."
Oren laughed. "You didn't kill that man, did you?"
"No. And I don't want credit for it either."
* * *
The next morning, after a breakfast of bacon and eggs and bread and beans, Justin sipped the hot and strong coffee and decided he needed to find the imposter. It was going to be hard to find out which way he'd headed after Boulder. It was a big territory.
"I better go to the store and get some supplies," Justin told Oren as he finished his coffee.
Oren raised an eyebrow. "Wanting to meet Henry?"
Justin laughed. "I forgot he owns the store. I need to buy some things. Is there is another store?"
"Not so you'd notice."
"Then it's time to meet Henry Clayton."
Few people were on the street. An occasional rider went by, and a buckboard clattered the length of the town's only street.
Justin walked down the center of the street, pausing to tip his hat to a woman sweeping the boardwalk in front of a small saddle shop and enjoying the tight-lipped smile she gave him.
A bell over the store's front door jangled when he walked in causing a stout man in his forties to turn. The smile on his face froze when he saw Justin.
"You are that gunfighter."
Justin held his hands up. "I'm just here to buy a few things." He nodded toward the door. "I can leave the door open."
The man worked his face, considering. "If you came to kill me that wouldn't make a difference."
"Probably not," Justin agreed. "I know this is uncomfortable, but you got the only store and I need to buy a few things." He tossed a coin on the counter.
The coin bounced and came to a stop. Henry looked at it. "Let's do business," Henry said.
"I don't need much." He put a list he'd written out on the counter.
Henry nodded. He grabbed the list then began moving around, putting together the order, stuffing things into a burlap sack. When he came to the box of 45 caliber ammo, Henry hesitated, just for a heartbeat.
Justin kept a smile on his face and his hand away from the butt of his gun.
Henry finally got the ammo in the bag, then turned and put it on the counter. He totaled up the bill and put a few coins on the counter.
"Your life must be hard sometimes."
"Not so bad when no one is trying to kill you. I imagine there are times it's hard being a shopkeeper."
Henry shrugged. "It isn't so bad when no one is trying to kill you."
* * *
Back at the saloon, Ella sat at a table having a drink with a rough-looking man.
"That's Monty," Oren told him.
"Let me buy us both a whisky," Justin said.
Oren grinned. "I take it we can drink to Henry's continued health?"
The smile on Oren's face pleased him. "He was happily alive when I left. Well not happily, exactly."
Oren chuckled. "If a man dies from a sour attitude, that's his own doing. Where'd Billy go?"
"I didn't see him."
"He followed you out."
"Did a fine job of it then. I never noticed him. I hope he gave up the idea of killing Henry."
Oren drank his drink down and slapped the glass on the bar. "Ella won't give him the time of day no matter what he does. He just can't see it."
Justin nodded. "I'd go looking for him, but if I tried to stop him from doing something stupid, he's likely to draw on me."
"You think he'd try to outdraw a professional?"
"He wants to impress Ella. He probably sees himself as a gunfighter already."
Oren scowled. "No accounting for a young buck in rut."
They raised their glasses but before Justin could get his glass to his mouth, shots rang out.
Justin was out the door in flash, with Oren, Ella, and the local man right behind him. They stared down the street.
Sheriff Miller came running up the street, his gun drawn. "You!" he shouted.
Justin put his hands up. "Not me, Sheriff."
Oren nodded. "We were inside talking when the shots got fired, Sheriff. All of us."
Sheriff Miller's face turned black. "Go back inside."
Unwilling to risk making the sheriff any angrier, they went back inside the saloon.
"At least we are being ordered to stay where there is whisky and a pretty woman," Justin said.
Ella looked drawn. "Where is Billy?"
"He said he was going to take care of a job for you."
"This is your fault," she said. "You were supposed to do it."
"You got that boy worked up about how grateful you'd be to anyone who killed Henry," Oren said.
Ella's face was a mask of disbelief. "Billy killing someone?"
"You got him thinking dark thoughts," Justin said.
She sneered. "He's a boy."
Shots rang out again. Several, this time. Justin started for the door, but Oren moved quickly to block his path. "The sheriff said to stay put."
"He could need help."
"That's his lookout," Oren said. "You go down there now and if things are tangled up, you could swing for something you didn't do."
Justin pushed him aside. "That's a risk I'll take."
As he stepped out the door, a man ran by. "Somebody shot the sheriff," he called out. "Shot him dead."
"He didn't say Billy shot him," Oren said.
Justin looked down the street and saw a man he'd never seen before walking toward them. "You know him?" Justin asked.
Oren shook his head. "Nope." He nudged Justin. "I'm going inside. My shotgun is calling to me."
As Oren disappeared, Justin watched the man walk steadily up the street. If it hadn't been for the sneer on his face, he might have passed for a man out for a leisurely stroll. He was unkempt, like a man who'd been on the trail for a time. A long scar painted an angry red line on from his eyebrow to his ear.
"I'm looking for a woman named Ella," he said.
A possible explanation for the swift events that had unfolded began forming in his mind. It would be a strange bit of luck, and bad luck for some, but the possibility intrigued him.
"She'd want to know who is asking for her," he said.
Ella stepped out of the saloon and stopped in the doorway.
"I'll bet that's her."
"You can't win the bet without saying who you are," Justin said.
The man scowled, a heavy-lidded look. "The name's Justin."
Justin smiled and shook his head. "What's your business with our Ella, Mister Justin?"
The man scowled. "You her father or something?"
"A friend, anyway."
"I came a long way to do her a favor. Now she owes me payment," he said. He reached in his shirt pocket and pulled out a photo. He looked at it and then Ella. "Yup, pretty as her picture."
The man walked toward her. "So, lady, I did what you asked." He pulled an envelope from his pocket and sniffed it, inhaling deeply, then waved it in the air. "This letter you sent me, well it was so sweet and polite, I figured you to be a nice lady, even if you are a saloon girl."
"Leave me alone," she said.
"What did you do, mister?" Justin asked.
The imposter turned to face Oren. "I did exactly what the lady asked. There weren't no justice in this town and she asked for my help. Now the man who wronged her is lying face down the street outside his store."
"I didn't ask you to kill him," Ella whimpered.
"Asking a hired gun to help you only means one thing, lady. Now it is time to settle up."
"Usually I get paid a lot more than you offered me, but I liked what I saw in the picture you sent. Seeing as you are such a pretty woman, we can go to a room and square things."
"Leave her alone," Billy shouted, coming out of the alley. Blood soaked the leg of his jeans and he hobbled toward them. "That man didn't kill Henry, Ella," he said. "I did it."
"The boy is trying a liar, ma'am," the man said.
Billy looked at her. "I shot Henry in a fair fight. The sheriff showed up and wanted to arrest me. I drew on him, but he shot me in the leg. When I fell down this man stepped out from nowhere and shot the sheriff in the back."
The imposter sneered as he turned and faced the room, his hand near his gun. "The boy's a little weasel of a liar. I called out your storekeeper, and when he was lying there dead, the sheriff came up and I shot him too. Your boyfriend decided to bushwhack me from cover, but I got him in the leg and left him there. Justin is no bushwhacker."
"What's so funny, twerp?"
Bill shook his head. "You pretending to be Justin with him standing right here."
The man took a breath. "This fella is stealing my name?"
"He's pretty convincing," Ella said.
"You think this fella killed all the people they say he's killed."
"Even I haven't killed all the people they say I killed," Justin said.
The imposter glowered. "There is one way to find out who is the real Justin."
Billy glowered. "You better try me first. If you can't beat me, you sure as hell aren't Justin."
The men faced off. The imposter drew, unholstering his colt and firing. Billy cleared leather but the man's bullet struck his arm, sending his shot wild.
"Now for you," the man said, bringing his gun to bear on Justin. Justin drew and fired, his shot catching the man in the chest, knocking him backward. He crashed down onto the street.
"Billy!" Ella shouted, jumping to her feet, running to him, and getting down on her knees beside him, taking him in her arms.
Oren came out, holding his shotgun. He looked down at the imposter and sighed. "Guess we will never know who that was."
* * *
"The doctor thinks Billy is one lucky kid," Oren said. "Said he might lose the use of his arm, but he'll live. But that doesn't seem all that lucky to me. Soon as he heals, they'll hang him for killing Henry."
Justin chortled. "Not if everyone agrees the fake Justin killed Henry." Oren looked at him. "We all know Billy was mostly talk and the other guy is already stone-cold dead. He won't mind being framed in the least."
Oren shook his head. "Pride is a funny thing. Not sure Billy will go for it. He might think saying he lied about doing it would end his hopes with Ella."
"That makes it a tough choice," Justin said.
"At least that fella showing up here saved you having to hunt him down," Oren said.
"Seems so." Justin shook his head. "I wish we knew who he was."
"Just another man gunned down by Justin," Oren said.
Even though he was smiling, Justin sighed.
* * *
On his way out of town, Justin swung by to watch the undertaker and his youthful assistant putting the imposter's body in his wagon.
The undertaker looked up at him. "You got any idea who this fella was, mister? I'm asking for the headstone."
"Not really," Justin said. "I know he called himself Justin," Justin said.
"His name was Justin?"
"No. He was lying. But you can put him down as an imposter calling himself Justin."
The man spit tobacco on the ground. "I can do that, I reckon. I like to be as accurate as I can."
"Good for you."
"And you killed him?"
"And who are you?"
"My name is Justin."
The undertaker shook his head. "This old world gets more confusing every single day."
Justin nodded and flicked the reins. "Sure seems to," he said. "Can't see it getting simpler any time soon."