Word Count: 7400
“What’s the rush?” Corporal Clive Bennett tightened the reins on his bay horse enough to get the animal to drop from a bone-jarring trot to a fast walk.
Frowning, Marshal Jack Craddock slowed his palomino, and took a quick look back at the Mountie.
“What’s the hurry to get back to Bordertown?” asked Bennett again. “Thought you said you’d enjoy getting away for a few days.”
Craddock tried to change the frown to a smile. “Maybe I just miss Marie’s beautiful smile, sweet voice, and twinkling eyes.” He tried joking some more with his friend, without revealing his gut feelings. “Maybe I’m tired of red-coat company.”
Bennett could tell Craddock was avoiding his question. He knew his friend, knew there was more to it than he was letting on. Jack had been pushing the horses hard ever since they had left Browning. “That’s not all of it.”
“Most likely its nothin’. I just hate for us both to be away from town like this. Somethin’ might happen.”
Bennett laughed. “What’s to happen in Bordertown? A cowboy or two get drunk.”
“Not much. I’ll agree. I just seem to have a feelin’ we need to get back. That trial took longer than I expected.”
The two lawmen had been to Browning to testify at a trial and they had been gone a week from their hometown of Bordertown, Montana Territory – or Bordertown, Canada. Depending on which side of town you were on, you could be in either Canada or the United States. Not only did the borderline between the two countries run though the town, it went right though the building used as an office and a jail by the two friends.
The marshal had to curb his instincts hard to control the urge he had to kick his horse into a run and get to Bordertown as fast as he could.
Bennett tried not to let himself be bothered by the Craddock’s predictions of impending doom. He looked around at the familiar countryside they were riding through, trying to appreciate the beauty of the fall day. The day was warm and full of sunshine, even though it was still only midmorning. Clive noted the brilliant colors of the leaves that had only recently been touched by frost. He saw the rust of oaks, the gold of aspen and birch, the red of maples and year-round green of the pines, spruces, and fir.
Many of the leaves had already left their parent trees to tumble to the ground, covering some wild mint. The horse’s hooves caused the leaves to rustle noisily and scatter even farther. The crushed mint sent its spicy odor into the air. While Jack ignored the beauty, scent, sounds of fall, Clive inhaled them and daydreamed of bringing Marie on a picnic to see the changing of the seasons. The bay horse came to a sudden abrupt halt causing the Mountie to return to the reality of the day.
Craddock had stopped his horse and was staring down the road. Without thought, his right hand rested lightly on the butt of the pistol on his left hip. Now Bennett could hear the drum of a running horse approaching them. In seconds, the brown and white pinto mare streaked around a bend in the road and headed for them.
The marshal’s hand dropped from his gun, and he yelled at the boy on the mare. “Willie, don’t you know better than to run that horse like that?”
Willie pulled up in front of the lawmen. The mare was dripping foam and shacking with fatigue from her run. The boy wasn’t in much better shape. He gasped for breath and tried to talk at the same time. “Mar-shal, —– Marshal Craddock. There’s men holdin’ everybody hostage.”
“What men?” asked Craddock.
“What do you mean, ‘holding everyboled in the process.”
“Any idea who they might be?”
Jack shook his head. “Nope.”
Willie spoke softly. “But we gotta do something.”
“We’ll think of something, Willie. Right now, let’s get closer to town.” Bennett turned his horse toward Bordertown. Willie started to follow, then looked back at Craddock, still deep in thought. After a few moments, the Marshal followed the boy and the Mountie.
The palomino horse approached the small community of Bordertown from the south, the American side. The marshal kept the horse at a slow walk. The short, fine hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. He knew he was being watched. He was trying to be casual about entering the town, hoping whoever was holding the town hostage wouldn’t guess he already knew about them.
He wanted to take his time so that Corporal Bennett and Willie could get into position. The only plan they had been able to come up with on such short notice wasn’t what they liked, but would have to do. Craddock was going to ride directly into town, as if nothing was wrong, and see what the situation was. Bennett would station himself on a small hill that overlooked part of the town, while Willie would try to sneak back into town, find out what he could and, if possible, report back to the Mountie.
Both lawmen knew the risk was great that the marshal would be killed as he rode in but had decided that it was more likely that he would be taken prisoner. They agreed that who ever wanted to kill him also wanted to make a game of it, to make him suffer and at the same time have some ‘fun’ playing with the townspeople.
Now, as Jack rode past the first homes and business he realized just how quiet it was. There was no one in sight. No horses were tied on the street, not even a dog barked. The only thing he saw was a big black tomcat, known around town as Spook, sitting on the seat of someone’s buckboard. The cat jumped down and joined the palomino, almost walking under the big animals hooves, the horse being careful not to step on him.
The marshal remembered a Harvest Dance had been planed for Saturday evening as he noticed a few decorations. There were stacks of corn stalks, scarecrows, and pumpkins, a few already carved into jack-o-lanterns. A gust of wind blew a scattering of dry leaves around the trio of horse, rider and cat. The cat playfully chased a few leaves, then returned to his place beside the palomino.
As Jack came even with the saloon, a man came out. The man was tall, slim, maybe in his mid-twenties. He had blond hair curling out from under an almost new white Stetson. The man’s clothes were in good shape. Gray wool suit coat and matching vest and pants. Black silk shirt with a bright red bandana at his throat, and highly polished black boots on his feet. No, not a dandy, trying to show off, thought Craddock, but a man who liked nice cloths and wore them well. He thought of brushing off some of the trail dust covering his own shirt and pants but didn’t. What caught Craddock’s eye the most was the well-worn black holster with the ivory handled Colt revolver tied snugly to the man’s right leg.
“Howdy, Marshal.” The man leaned casually against the doorframe.
Craddock nodded but didn’t answer.
“Nice day, ain’t it.”
“I suppose it is.” Craddock glanced around, looking for the man’s friends. “Don’t think I know you, mister.”
The man locked his bright blue eyes onto the marshal’s dark brown ones. “You don’t, but you knew my cousin.”
Craddock waited for the man to continue. “Me and my cousin. We grew up together. Like brothers. You, Marshal, arrested my cousin for cattle rustlin’.” The man waited a moment. “They hung him over at Ft. Benton last month. His name was Al Tanner.
So that was it, thought the Marshal. Family vengeance. Yes, he remembered Al Tanner. Remembered the young man he had caught changing brands on some of Henry Jordon’s stock. Remembered how Tanner had fought him tooth and nail, first with his fists, then he had pulled a gun and Craddock had shot him in the arm. Tanner’s two young partners had pleaded guilty, and testified against Tanner. They had gone to jail, while Tanner had hung. So this was the cousin who had come to avenge the family honor. Jack shuttered inwardly at the thought. Under different circumstances he might have done the same thing. Could he convince this man he was making a mistake? Somehow he doubted it.
The marshal rested both hands on the saddlehorn. There was no way he would make a move for his gun. “You got a name? You got a reason for being here?”
“Name’s Wes Tanner and I’m here to kill you, Craddock.” Tanner’s hand went to his gun as if to draw it.
“Why? I got no quarrel with you. Don’t recall seein’ you on any wanted posters.” Craddock made sure not to make a move.
Tanner grinned. “I’m gonna’ kill you, Craddock, ‘cause if you hadn’t arrested Al, he’d still be alive today. It’s your fault he’s dead. You’re gonna pay. Then that judge and that hangman.”
“I just did my job. Al Tanner broke the law, so I took him in.”
“Maybe so, Craddock, and when I kill you, it’s gonna be legal-like. I’m callin’ you out. We’re gonna do it face to face. Legal gunfight in the street. Just you and me, Craddock. Fastest man wins.”
“Nope,” said Craddock in answer to Tanner’s short speech. “Ain’t gonna be that way. I don’t allow no gunfights in my town. Don’t participate in them, either.”
“Now, Craddock, you got you a pretty good reputation with a gun. So do I. We fight –whoever wins has an even better reputation.”
“Well, I may have had a reputation one time but I didn’t want it then and sure don’t want it now.” The Marshal smiled slightly. “An’ you, Tanner. I ain’t never heard of you or your reputation.”
Tanner was taken aback by the Marshal’s statement. He frowned at the thought that Craddock didn’t know of his fame.
“How many men you killed?” asked Craddock. “One, two? Ain’t no trick to killin’ a man. Hard part’s takin’ him alive. Your cousin, now. He fought hard, but I took him alive to stand trial.”
“But he’s dead now. They hung him. And that’s the problem, he is dead. So I gotta kill you now.”
“Nope, it ain’t gonna be.” Craddock took up the reins of his horse to go on up the street. “So you might as well ride on out.”
“That’s where your wrong, Marshal. Sooner or later we’ll have our gunfight. Might as well be now.” Tanner turned to the saloon. “Nelson. Bring out a couple of them women.”
Craddock and Tanner watched as a short, heavyset man with dirty, stringy, brown hair and cloths to match, appeared at the saloon door, disappeared, and then reappeared again holding a women by the arm.
“My, my. Ain’t you a pretty one,” said Tanner and pulled the women away from Nelson to stand by him. It was the town doctor, Marie Dumont.
Craddock looked at the blond women a moment then asked. “Marie, you all right?” He dismounted and let the reins drop to the ground.
“Yes,” she replied and struggled briefly but quit when she realized she couldn’t get away.
The other outlaw, Nelson, had pulled another women out the door. Sally Duffield stuffed a fist in her mouth to keep from screaming.
“Everyone else all right? Any one hurt?” asked Craddock.
“Only Dom,” answered Marie, her French accent had thickened with her fright. “He tried to fight them and one of them hit him on the head. He is still unconscious.”
Tanner took up where Marie left off. “No one been hurt yet, Marshal, and they won’t be, if you and me have our gunfight–but if we don’t, then I’m gonna start hurtin’ these folks. Might even start with this here doctoring lady with the sassy tongue.” He pulled Marie closer and twisted her arm until she whimpered in pain.
It was all Jack could do to keep from pulling his gun and shooting Tanner, but Marie was in front of him and sure to get hurt if he tried.
“One hour, Marshal. Make it one hour. One hour for you to think about what my cousin must have felt and thought about that last hour before they hung him. One hour. To think about which one of these women or maybe one of those inside I’m gonna kill first if you’re not standin’ in the street ready to draw your gun. One hour.”
One hour, thought Jack. That was a lot more time than he and Clive had expected to have. It might be enough for them to come up with a better plan.
“Oh, and Marshal. Don’t try to leave town.” Tanner nodded at the roof of Marie’s general store. The marshal could see a hat brim and the barrel of a rifle. “That’s Spader. He’ll be watching you.”
As Tanner and Nelson started to go back into the saloon with the women, the black cat, Spook, jumped up onto the hitchrail. Balancing lightly, he sat there eyeing the outlaw Nelson. The sight of the cat caused Nelson to stumble back against the saloon wall in fright, his eyes bugging out.
Tanner laughed harshly at his friend. ”Hey, Nelson you afraid of a little kitty cat?”
“But it’s a black cat,” sputtered Nelson, as he drew his gun. “Gotta kill it.”
“No!” cried Lucy Walker. She ran out of the saloon and grabbed the cat, clutching it to her. “Don’t hurt Spook.”
Craddock and Tanner had both pulled their guns but neither had fired. Jack had not wanted to fire into a group of people and Tanner hadn’t wanted things to end this way. He still wanted his gunfight.
“Nelson,” Tanner struck down the outlaw’s arm. “Go inside with the women.”
“Not with that – that – Cat.” Nelson was still staring at Lucy and Spook.
Craddock saw that he might have a slight edge over Nelson. He pointed his gun directly at the superstitious man even thought Tanner was a hair’s breath from shooting the marshal.
“You, Nelson! You harm one hair on that cat — or any other resident of this town—and I’ll hunt you down and kill you.” At the look on Nelson’s face, Jack had to add an additional threat. “Even if I’m dead, myself.”
Nelson sucked in his breath and he shook from head to toe. Craddock knew he had said the right thing. “Lucy,” he said, “put Spook down and go back inside. Marie, Sally, go with her.” The girl did as told and Sally followed her. Craddock could tell Marie was going to argue. “Go on, Marie.”
The lady doctor knew she had no choice, so she followed her friend Sally and the orphaned girl she had taken in to raise, putting an arm around both their waists to lend them a little comfort.
Tanner still had his gun trained on the marshal. “One hour, Craddock.”
“I heard you, Tanner. One hour it is.” Jack slid his pistol back into his holster and Tanner did the same.
“Craddock, stick to your office. I see you tryin’ anything, someone dies — and take that cat with you.”
“What’s wrong, Tanner? You superstitious as Nelson?” Craddock led his horse over in front of the jail, flipping the reins around the hitchrail. Spook followed him through the jail door.
It was just past noon, and the hot, autumn sun beat down on the small town. So that he wouldn’t be seen so easily, the corporal had left his red Mountie coat on his horse, which was tethered out of sight with Willie’s mare. Sweat beaded his brow as he climbed the pinetree-covered hill. The sweat wasn’t just from the exercise; Clive Bennett was frightened, maybe more frightened than he had ever had been before. Not for himself. It was the town he was frightened for. Bordertown. His town, his home and his friends. His friends, who were more like family than the family he had left in Toronto when he had joined the Northwest Mounted Police. Clive was worried that he and the Marshal would be unable to capture the men holding the town.
Reaching the top of the hill, he concealed himself behind a very large tree stump, laying his Winchester rifle across it. He was in time to see Craddock rein in his palomino in front of the saloon. He could tell Craddock was talking to someone but couldn’t hear what was being said, nor could he see whoever the marshal was talking to.
Craddock looked as if he was going to ride on. Then, after another minute, he dismounted, and seconds later pulled his gun, causing Bennett to jerk his rifle up. But when no shots rang out, the Mountie held his fire, also. He knew something was happening but couldn’t tell what. All he could do was wait. Clive didn’t know what he would do if Craddock was taken prisoner, or worse killed. If that happened, he had no idea how he could save Bordertown.
And what about Marie? Where was she while all this was going on? Clive groaned silently at the thought of what she might be going through at the hands of the desperadoes. For a moment he imagined he could see the beautiful French doctor. When he had been transferred to Bordertown, Clive had fallen head over heals for Marie at first sight, but Marie had been still recovering from the recent death of her husband. Now after several years, she was beginning to show some interest in other men, and not just for Clive, but for Jack Craddock and maybe even a few of the businessmen and ranchers that seemed to be trying to court her. The Mountie gritted his teeth in jealousy. He had asked Marie to marry him once, but she had said it was too soon, so he was now waiting for her to indicate she might be ready. He knew she would. Marie was a very outspoken, opinionated woman, but it was one of the things he liked about her.
Bennett shifted his position behind the stump; as he did so, sunlight glinted from something on the roof of Marie’s store. Gradually Bennett made out the shape of a man crouched on the roof, pointing a rifle into the street. That was one. How many more? He was sure Craddock had been talking to at least one of them. That made two. He figured there were more than two. He was guessing they were holding the townspeople in the saloon. One, maybe two, to keep watch there. Maybe another on each end of town. Bennett figured a minimum of five. He and Craddock were probably outnumbered at least three to one.
Bennett swiped at his face with his sleeve, smearing the sweat. Keeping one hand on the Winchester, he crossed his arms on the stump, then rested his forehead on his arms, closing his eyes to rest for a minute. It would be a long afternoon. Maybe his last.
A tall, skinny outlaw with a pockmarked face who when by the name of Dex snickered at the group of Bordertown residents. He leaned against the bar, a pistol held in one hand, and watched with eyes that were a strange shade of yellow. Grease stained his mouth from the meal he and Nelson had eaten. He swiped at it with his free hand but only smeared it worse.
There were about twenty-five men, women, and a few children gathered in the saloon. The rest of the local folks had been lucky enough to be out of town for one reason or another, but Marie Dumont and several others worried what would happen when the others started straggling in. They hoped the deadly situation would be over before then.
“What happened out there?” asked Zac Denney, the saloon owner. Zac’s wife, Diane, leaned closer so she could hear better.
The Denneys’ bartender and cook, Dom, had regained consciousness and now sat at the table with his friends, head in his hands, while Marie cleaned a small cut in his scalp.
“Marshal Craddock is here,” whispered Marie. “Tanner wants to have a gunfight with Jack. In one hour.”
“I thought the Marshal didn’t like gunfights,” said Dom.
“Did he agree to it?” asked Diane.
Marie tied a strip of cloth lightly around Dom’s head as a bandage. “He didn’t have a choice.”
“Hey. Doctor lady. Enough talk.” Dex stepped up to the table where they sat and wiggled his gun at them. “I said no talkin’.” He stared around the room at each hostage to emphasize his order. Everyone was seated at no more than a half dozen tables that had been pushed toward the back of the saloon. Dex returned to his place at the bar.
Tanner sat at a table near the stairs. He ignored Dex, and expertly shuffled a deck of cards, then laid out a game of solitaire. Laying down the cards, he uncorked a bottle of Zac’s finest whiskey, poured two fingers into a shot glass and downed it. Then he began to play his game.
Nelson paced the room near the door, then stalked behind the bar, grabbed a bottle, pulled the cork with his jagged teeth, spit out the cork, and poured several swallows down his throat. He slammed the bottle back onto the bar and began pacing again.
Dex downed a mug of beer that had been sitting on the bar, then took a last piece of chicken from a plate on a nearby table. Earlier Dom and Diane had been forced to cook a full meal for their captors. “Hey, boss,” Dex asked, “you sure you can take this Craddock feller?”
“Of course,” answered Tanner, not even looking up from the card game.
“Well, the sooner the better. Me and the Doc, here, wanta spent some time gettin’ aquatinted.” Dex reached over and pulled a loose strand of Marie’s blond hair. She slapped his hand away but didn’t say anything, just glared at the gunman.
Tanner spoke sharply. “Dex, keep your mind on business for now. There’ll be plenty of time for the women later.”
At the sound of the harsh voices, a baby’s fussy whining became a loud cry. “Sh-h-h.” The young mother tired to calm her upset child. A boy, of about five, clung to her skirt.
“Mommy, I’m scared. Are those men going to hurt us,” the little boy asked.
“Shut your mouth, boy,” yelled Dex. “Woman, keep them brats quiet.”
Tears came to her eyes. “I – I’m trying.” She clutched the baby tighter.
Marie reached out her arms to the boy. “Come here, Brian.” She picked him up and settled him in her lap. “No one is going to hurt you.” She turned to Tanner. “The children are hungry.” There were two little girls sitting scared but quiet. Lucy squirmed in her seat but didn’t say anything. She, as well as Marie, had been helping with the children, too.
Tanner looked up from the cards. “Nelson. Take that one,” he pointed at Sally, “to the kitchen for food for the kids.” Sally got up and left the room with the nervous Nelson.
Marie studied on the situation. There were six outlaws that she was sure off. The marshal was being forced into a gunfight with the leader. She had seen her friend shoot. She knew Jack was a better than average shot. But was he as good as this Tanner? Even if Jack could kill Tanner what would the others do? She doubted that they would just leave. Marie hated to see or hear of gunfights and had made her opinion known to the Marshal on more than one occasion. In fact, the last time someone had challenged the lawman, Jack had taken his gun off and refused to fight. What if he wouldn’t fight this time? Somehow Marie didn’t think Tanner would walk away as the other man had.
And where was Clive Bennett?
Sally returned with a tray with cold sliced roast, cheese and bread. Nelson followed her with a pitcher of milk. Diane found beer mugs for the four children to drink from.
Dex filled his own mug with more beer. “Hey, Tanner. Even if you don’t kill Craddock — say he kills you instead – well, I’ll just shoot him, myself. Me or Spader over on the roof. Won’t be in no gunfight, neither.”
Marie tried not to let the horror of Dex’s words show on her face. She had to find some way to help Jack.
Nelson began pacing again. “I don’t like it, Tanner. You should a let me kill that cat. Don’t like black cats. Black cats are bad luck.”
Tanner frowned. “Shut up, Nelson.” He thought of a black cat named Spook.
After entering his office, Marshal Jack Craddock had circled the small area several times, looking out each window, almost tripping over the cat as it followed him. He was trying to see if any other outlaws were keeping watch over Bordertown. He could see Spader sitting on the store roof, rolling a cigarette. Going into Bennett’s quarters off the north side of the office, he spied another man leaning against the corral fence behind Otto Danzinger’s livery stables.
Jack stomped back through the office, Spook following, past the jail cells in the back room and jerked open the back door. Nothing. No movement or sign of anyone, but there were lots of places to hide. He looked up hoping to catch a glimpse of the Mountie on the hill east of town, but realized his position wasn’t quite right to see the big stump.
Frustrated he slammed the door. What did he do now? How could he get word to Bennett? And what could the Mountie do? And where was Willie? Craddock had wanted the boy to stay out of the way, out of town somewhere safe, until this was all over. Of course Willie had refused and the two lawmen knew he might possibly be of help to them.
One hour. One hour until Tanner would walk out into the street and demand Craddock come out and fight him. What would Tanner do if he, Craddock, refused? The marshal didn’t want to think of the consequences to that decision. He could picture Tanner dragging out hostages one by one and shooting them down. He would have to take part in the showdown with the gunman, much as he disliked the idea. Much as he didn’t want to admit it to himself, he was terribly frightened of having to be in a gunfight again.
He picked up the coffee pot to make a pot of fresh coffee, but the thought of building a fire in this hot weather was too much. He was sweating now. He put the pot down, took a tin cup and dipped it in the water bucket, drinking deeply. Using the cup again, he poured water into a washbasin and then splashed several hands full onto his face, letting the excess run down his neck and shirtfront, knowing the cooling effect it would have.
After drying on an old towel, he lifted the Colt .45 pistol from its holster at his waist, and placed it on his desk. Sitting at the desk, the first thing he did was take another gun from a drawer, load it and lay it with in easy reach on a corner of the desk. He wasn’t about to be caught without a loaded weapon to hand.
Spook jumped up onto the opposite corner. He meowed softly and Jack absently rubbed the top of the cat’s head, then stoked the soft, pointed ears. “Were you trying to help out there? Did you know that fella Nelson didn’t like cats?”
Craddock unloaded, then broke down the Colt, his favorite gun, and began setting out the supplies to clean it. Cleaning rods, gun oil, solvent, old rags for patches. As he calmly and methodically worked, he considered the gunfight.
He didn’t want to have to participate in another one. He had done it before. The last time had been here in Bordertown, and he didn’t like it. Some men, and apparently this Tanner was one of them, seemed to get a big thrill out of standing twenty feet from another man, and on some invisible signal, drawing their six-shooters and firing, trying to kill each other. Usually one died. Sometimes both did. On rare occasions neither did. It wasn’t done the European way with fancy dueling pistols, with witnesses and doctors to care for the injured. Here in the west, it was usually between two men who simply hated each other, or maybe they had meet only minutes before, one thinking the other had done him some wrong. Or this way, with Tanner wanting revenge. But one of the most common reasons was the urge for a reputation as a fast gun, and Jack figured this was Tanner’s real reason, more so than revenge of his cousin.
The marshal remembered his first gunfight. He had been sick to his stomach for days afterward. The second time he had been so scared he had almost backed down, but his pride hadn’t let him. Now he was just as scared, but not for himself. There was more than just his pride at stake this time. There was a whole town. An unknown number of townspeople. Marie, Willie, Lucy, Dom, Zac, Diane, Sally, and Clive as well as the others.
Well, he had stepped around several gunfights in the past few years. He had talked down reputation seekers, and taken guns away from drunks. Now he was being forced to do what scared him the most. Jack’s hands shook slightly as he reassembled the Colt.
Spook had been dozing on the desk, but now his head swiveled around and his yellow eyes glared as there was a slight creaking at the backdoor as it swung inward. The marshal didn’t jump up, or even look up at the sound, but reached over, picked up the spare pistol, cocked it and waited.
The inner door opened a crack and Willie Hayden peaked in. “Marshal,” he whispered.
“Willie, you alone?” asked Craddock.
“Anyone see you?” Craddock let down the hammer of the pistol and laid it down.
“I don’t think so. Corporal Bennett went up to the stump but decided he couldn’t do any good up there. He’s over at my uncle’s barn. He wants to know what you found out.”
Craddock finished loading the Colt, wiped it with and an oily rag, and dropped it into his holster. He slid it in and out several times making sure it was loose. “Man named Tanner is holding the town until I have a gunfight with him.”
“When? And why?” asked Willie.
“He said one hour. Be ‘bout a half hour left, I reckon. Said he’s here ‘cause I arrested this cousin and the judge hung him. Most likely its ‘cause he wants a reputation as a gunfighter.”
“You gonna do it?”
“I have to, Willie. He’s not leavin’ me a choice. He has Marie, Lucy and the others in the saloon.” Craddock hesitated; it wasn’t the time to keep anything from the boy. “Willie, even if I win — if I kill Tanner — the others won’t let me live. They’ll shoot be down.” Willie looked horrified at the thought.
Quickly the marshal told him about Nelson in the saloon, Spader on the roof, and the man by the corral, and of his suppositions of at least one more south of town.
After watching the back for several minutes, Willie slipped out; he would find Corporal Bennett and let him know of the gunfight.
Craddock opened the office door, walked out and leaned casually against the hitch rail. In a loud voice, he issued a challenge. “Anytime your ready, Tanner. Come on out. Anytime.”
It was a challenge, but he hoped to distract the attention of Spader and the others so Bennett could get in closer.
Bennett hadn’t waited for Willie to return. He had slipped up beside a shed near the jail and grabbed Willie as the boy went by, placing a hand over his mouth to stifle any noise the boy might make. Willie had gasped in fright but calmed as he recognized the Mountie’s voice. “Willie, hold on. What did Craddock say?” He removed his hand from Willie’s mouth.
Low voiced Willie told him of Tanner holding everyone in the saloon and how he wanted a gunfight with the Marshal.
“In a few minutes, I guess. Tanner had said one hour but it must be ‘most up.”
“There’s one on the store roof. Any others?”
“Yeah, the Marshal said at least one more in the saloon and one at Otto’s and most likely one on the south end of town.”
Both Willie and the Mountie jerked as they heard Craddock’s voice taunting Tanner to come out. “They’ll kill him, Corporal Bennett. Even if he wins the gunfight.”
“Go back to your uncle’s place, Willie, but don’t get caught” Bennett had made a decision. “I’m going to take out the man at Otto’s, then any others I can. I have to give Jack a chance.”
Willie watched the Mountie sneaking toward the corral, then he turned and slipped back into the jail. He wasn’t going to hide at home. From the office, he watched the Marshal. Craddock still leaned against the hitch rail, watching the saloon. Spook, the cat sat at his feet.
The man at Otto’s corral never suspected anyone was near him until a brief second before Bennett’s gun butt hit him on the head. The Mountie caught him as he fell, dragging him into the barn. He snagged a rope and tied him up. After a second thought, he gagged him with an old rag he found.
One down, but at least three more, besides Tanner. He would leave Tanner for Craddock. He needed to apprehend as many of the other bandits as he could before the gunfight. Through a gape in the barn he could see the Marshal in front of the jail. As he watched, Craddock walked into the middle of the street.
“Hey, Tanner, you chicken out on me? Your hour’s up. Come on out.”
Spader, the man on the roof, sat up straighter, pointing his rifle at Craddock. The marshal didn’t look up.
Bennett saw his chance. He ran out the back of the barn, past the back of the meeting hall to the back of Marie’s store. He glimpsed a shadow headed his way in the alley. He stayed in the darkened doorway, and when the man put his gun away to climb the ladder to the roof, Bennett gave him the same treatment as his friend at the corral. After knocking him out, Marie’s storeroom supplied a rope, a gage and a place to leave the bad man.
The Marshal’s rough voice pierced the quiet of the small town a third time. “Tanner, I’ve waited ‘bout long enough. Come on out or I’m comin’ in.”
It was Nelson who came out of the saloon first, gun held in his hand. He stepped into the street, then turned to face the saloon. Marie came next but stayed on the boardwalk, as indicated by Nelson and his gun. After Marie came the other hostages.
Tanner came out, arms folded across his chest; he walked into the center of the main street of Bordertown, then faced Craddock. “I want all these good people to see a real gunfight. I want them to be witness to the fact that I won, all legal-like…”
Marie broke in on Tanner’s speech. “…and what will happen if the Marshal should win. Will your men leave? Or will they shoot him down in cold blood.”
Tanner turned, looking directly at Marie. “Well now, lady doc. If Craddock wins and I’m dead, I won’t have no say so in what happens next. That will be up to my men, won’t it?”
Tanner grinned, while Nelson laughed out loud. Dex had come out of the saloon. He snickered, an evil gleam in his pale eyes. He grabbed Marie by the arm, pulling her along a few steps. “Here, you an’ me can watch together, but that Marshal ain’t gonna win. I’ve seen Tanner shoot. He’s ‘most good as me.”
Marie glared at Dex. “I have seen the Marshal shoot.” Dex just snickered again.
Tanner heard Marie and felt a brief flicker in his stomach, then it was gone, his confidence as big as ever. Then he saw the black cat. It walked slowly down the street toward him and tried to rub against his leg. He kicked at it with one booted foot. The cat dodged, walked back in front of him, faced Tanner, sat down and starred straight into his eyes for a moment. Then Spook lifted a front paw to wash its face.
Clive Bennett peeked around the corner of the general store. He saw Bordertown people lining the walkway, watching the street, along with two men holding guns. Jack and another man faced each other in the street. Probably still left one man on the roof that he couldn’t see. Even worse, one outlaw was holding Marie in front of him.
Tanner and Craddock stared at each other, brown eyes locked with blue, waiting. Who would be the first to move? The first to draw his gun? The seconds ticked by like hours.
Nelson stood nervously at the edge of the street watching, not the men, but the cat, Spook, as it washed its face. Nelson licked his lips, sweet pouring down his face. Something was wrong. He was sure it was the cat.
Wes Tanner’s brow began to bead with sweat in the hot afternoon sun. Why didn’t the Marshal draw? Jack Craddock stood calmly, waiting as if he had all day. Tanner had been so sure he could outwait Craddock, make him start his draw first, make him jumpy and uneasy so his draw would be slow, and his aim would be off. Now he wasn’t so sure. As Tanner waited, the black cat stood up and walked toward him.
Nelson couldn’t stand still any longer. He ran toward Tanner. “The cat!” he yelled. “Tanner, watch out for the cat.”
Nelson’s yell startled Tanner, causing the man to grab for his pistol. As he did, Craddock smoothly drew his .45, cocked it, fired, then threw himself to the side, rolled and fired again. He saw Tanner go down and felt a bullet burn his leg as he rolled a second time to come up right in front of Dex and Marie.
Marie had tried to jerk away from Dex at the first shot, then had stomped on his foot, throwing him off balance. Not daring to fire again with so many bystanders, Craddock charged Dex taking him to the ground, and slamming his left fist into the man’s jaw at the same time. The outlaw’s eyes went blank, then closed, as his head slammed into the saloon wall.
Seeing Tanner go down and Craddock go after Dex, the Mountie turned his attention to Spader, who was bringing his rifle to bear on the Marshal. Clive fired one shot, and Spader and his rifle crashed to the ground.
Willie had come from the jail, a gun held in his hand. He pointed it at Nelson, who was attempting to run away. “Drop your gun,” Willie demanded. Nelson did as told and raised his hands. The terrified man stood stock still as the black cat wound around his legs, then reached up and clawed at his knee with one black paw. Nelson screeched in fright.
Lucy giggled in relief at the sight of the would-be badman so afraid of the cat. “Willie, you captured an outlaw,” she said.
Seeing that Dex wouldn’t cause anymore trouble for the moment, and that Willie and Spook had Nelson under control, Craddock looked up and down the small town but didn’t see any more of Tanner’s gang. Tanner, himself lay sprawled at an odd angle in the dusty street, a few dried leaves caught against his body. The marshal hadn’t wanted to have to kill the gunslinger but Tanner had forced him to. Turning from the sight of the dead man, Jack watched as the Mountie ran up to the lady doctor. At least his friends were safe. He grimaced at the sight of Clive and Marie, wishing he had thought to hug her first. Oh, well, it was his job to protect the town, even if he never got any thanks for it.
“Marie, are you all right?” Clive asked as he pulled her to him. “Is everyone all right?” he asked looking around at his friends.
“Yes,” said Marie. “We are all fine. Now that you and Jack have rescued us.”
Jack heard her words and it was all the thanks he needed. He limped up to Willie. “Point that gun at the ground, then let the hammer down slow and easy.” Willie did as instructed, sure he was in trouble for taking the gun. “Now put your prisoner in a jail cell.” The Marshal grinned at the young man, who grinned back at him.
Nelson almost ran into the jail to escape the black cat. Lucy picked up Spook and hugged him tightly. Craddock rubbed the furry, black ears. “Thanks again, Spook.” The cat accepted all the attention and purred contentedly
Remembering how Clive and Marie disliked gunfights, the Marshal expected nothing but hard words from them. He looked at Tanner lying dead in the street, and then saw Spader nearby. He realized it must have been Spader who had shot him in the leg and the Mountie who had killed Spader.
Clive turned to Jack. “Good shooting,” was all he said. It was all that was needed between the two friends. They both had done their job in saving the town.
Jack nodded at Spader. “Thanks for the help. Were there any other?” He still held his pistol in his hand. Now he punched out the empty shells, added loaded ones, then slid the .45 into its holster.
“Yes, one’s tied up in the barn and one in Marie’s store. I better go get them.”
Marie watched as Clive headed for the barn where his first trussed-up prisoner awaited. Willie had marched Nelson off to the jail, the outlaw was only to willing to go anywhere he would be safe from that black cat. Zac and Dom were hauling the still unconscious Dex to the jail after Nelson. She turned to the Marshal to thank him for his help. “Jack, you are bleeding.” Marie had just then noticed the splotch of red on the marshal’s pants leg.
“It ain’t much. I’ll be fine with a little of your doctorin’, Marie.”
“Well, come on then.” She started to lead the way to her home, one hand on his arm, not sure if he would accept a hug as had Clive, especially here in the middle of the street. She would be sure to thank him later.
Willie had returned from locking his prisoner in the jail. He almost bounced with each step, he was so proud to have been able to help the two lawmen rescue the people of Bordertown. He almost forgot how scared he had been watching the Marshal and Tanner face each other in the street. Catching up to the Marshal and Marie, he saw Jack stumble slightly, and slipped an arm around his friend to steady him.
The lawman looked down at the boy he had helped become a man. “You’ll do to ride with, son. You’ll do.” Pride swelled in Jack at what the boy had done that day.