Read The Long High Noon Online

Authors: Loren D. Estleman

The Long High Noon

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To the memory of Jory Sherman; a force of nature, now inexplicably stilled

 

Love is a kind of warfare.

—O
VID

 

ONE

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

No one but Randy Locke and Frank Farmer knew just what it was that had blackened the blood between them, but it didn't lose its kick with time.

That it had to do with a woman suggested itself right away, and when fifteen years after their first run-in Abraham Cripplehorn christened her Mississippi Belle, the legend was complete. The fact that the writer/promoter had named her after the boat he kept in Gulfport was universally overlooked: Romance is everyone's weakness.

Money was the inevitable second suggestion; but ranch hands didn't covet it, only the fun that comes with it, and the effects didn't last long enough to justify violence.

If either remembered the actual cause, it rode drag behind the standing strategy, which was to annihilate the other man whenever the pair wandered onto the same plot of real property. It was the one fixed thing in a changing West, and it was in place so long, and was so thoroughly a part of their alchemical makeup, I really think they got so they could smell each other across a slaughteryard.

Most likely whatever set them on the prod happened when both were working for the old Circle X in south Texas just after the end of the Rebellion, potting and being potted at by Don Alvarado's vaqueros across the border over cattle of indistinct claim. Randy and Frank were a close match with pistols, although Frank had the edge with a carbine after years of sniping Confederates from trees. He saw it as a point of honor not to use that advantage over Randy, because he didn't want suspicions of imparity to take the shine off dancing a jig on his enemy's grave.

Physically, the two were indistinguishable from the lot that flocked to the big ranches looking for work in those heady early years of the North American cattle trade. Randy was short and thick, and had the distracting habit of blinking constantly, his eyes being sensitive to sun and dust, which were the principal exports of the desert Southwest after stringy beef and chili peppers that burned like fire ants going down and like molten iron coming out. He favored Mexican sombreros with umbrella brims to cut some of the glare, and which some of his less-sensitive colleagues said made him resemble a roofing nail. Randy is generally reckoned to have been about twenty-two at the time of that first confrontation. Frank was lean, looked taller than he was because of his long legs, but when he sat a horse his hat came level with Randy's when he rode alongside. Both men sported whiskers, Randy's on the slovenly side, Frank's trimmed into neat imperials whenever a barber was handy. The entry of his birth in the family Bible in Pennsylvania put him at twenty-four in that year of 1868. He was tidy in his dress and grooming, whether he was wearing wool worsted or faded dungarees. His fellow hands said he could roll in cowflop on Saturday afternoon and take a duchess to a dance Saturday night. They called him Lord Percival when he was out of earshot: He was too good with a long gun, and his fists when it wasn't inside reach, to chance it otherwise. He told Shuck Ballard he spent half his wages on boots and tailoring.

“What about the other half?” Shuck asked.

“Frittered away on fool things.”

Curiously, Randy, round-faced and not given overmuch to hygiene, seldom wanted for female company of his own. It wasn't unusual for him to enter a saloon with one on his arm, and sometimes both.

“I treat 'em like ladies, that's the secret,” he said. “I always take off my socks. Sometimes they don't even charge.”

When that got back to Frank, he curled his lip. “That little stump'd have to pay a sheep.”

The first time they turned their pistols away from Mexicans and on each other was in the Bluebottle Saloon in El Paso, from either end of the fifty-foot bar the owner touted as the longest west of St. Louis. Both missed, being of an alcoholic temperament at the time, but stout Randy corrected that the next morning when he rousted lanky Frank out of a tub of bathwater in the Cathay Gardens on Mesa Street and broke one of his short ribs with a .44 slug when Frank lunged for his Colt in its holster hanging on the back of a chair.

He recovered, of course, or our story would end here, and he went looking for Randy, who'd been turned out of the outfit for shorthanding it just before the drive to Kansas, when every man jack was worth twice the price of his string. (The Circle X foreman, George Purdy, was infamous for solutions that doubled the original problems. He wound up a state senator in Indiana.) Frank caught up with Randy in a stiff Wyoming winter in the middle of wolfing season and shot his horse out from under him—a result of windage, which is easier to miscalculate when you're using a short gun at a distance. The horse rolled over on Randy, dumping fifty dollars in bounty pelts lashed behind the cantle and shattering his leg.

This a little more than evened the account, because while Frank's wound had healed, leaving him with nothing worse than a throbbing misery when it snowed or rained, Randy's injury left him with a limp and not much prospect of ranch employment unless he put in for cook, and prolonged exposure to greasy fumes gave him the Tucson Two-Step, and an unfortunate nickname among the hands. He reckoned that as one more charge against Frank's side of the ledger.

As it happened, though, Randy's fortunes improved as a direct result.

The buffalo harvest was coming to its summit, with the Industrial Revolution going full tilt back East and in perpetual need of leather to make the belts to drive the gears of its manufactories, lap robes selling like tortillas among the carriage trade, and the army offering to redeem empty cartridge shells for cash in order to offset hunting expenses and encourage the starvation of the pestiferous Indian. If the winter was long enough and the thermometer stuck on zero, the big shaggies grew coats that dragged the ground and made an enterprising man's fortune in a season.

Randy oiled his good Ballard rifle, bought an elmwood wagon and four months' worth of tinned sardines and peaches, and set off for the prairie with an experienced skinner and a half-breed guide. They prospered. Notwithstanding the inconvenience of a three-month head cold and one frostbitten cheek that never did heal completely, Randy's share when they sold their first load of hides came to more than he'd seen roping and branding semi-tame bovines the previous four years.

The breed guide, who for unexplained reasons went by the name of Prince Robert, asked him how he intended to invest his share.

“Now I know how to hunt buffler, I'm fixing to spend every last dime tracking down Frank Farmer, putting a slug in his brain pan, and curing his hide in the hottest sun I can find this side of Pharaoh—and the other side, too, comes to that.”

Prince Robert didn't pursue the point. He'd spent months of nights hearing his charge muttering Frank's name in his sleep, modifying it in terms that would shame a Virginia City bullwhacker. In the language of his Pawnee father, the guide referred to him in his thoughts as Snake-Who-Drinks-His-Own-Venom. He got his fill of it after one season, turned down the offer of another at twice the percentage, and signed on with the Seventh Cavalry, with whom he spilled out his life's blood on the field the Sioux and Cheyenne called the Greasy Grass; no doubt thanking the Man Above with his last breath he didn't have to listen to Randy Locke consigning Frank Farmer to Hell Everlasting any more.

Needless to say, Randy's happier financial condition hadn't made him grateful to his nemesis. He knew that game leg was not the result of an altruistic act. If anything, prosperity gave him the luxury of turning his attention from the humdrum concern of survival to refining the details of his vengeance. Over open fires he chewed on buffalo tongue, pretending it was Frank's liver, and whenever he rode into a town to pick up supplies and provisions, he circulated a description of the man he hated among all the locals.

They weren't much help, being locals and not inclined to travel and gather news in those brief few years when railroad construction was progressing at a crawl against natural obstructions and hostile tribes determined to eject the white man from their ancestral hunting grounds. If anything, his zeal for information made some of them suspect him of being a bounty-killer, one of those flightless raptors the war had spewed out into the frontier, or worse, a lawman, and the rare drifter who might have been persuaded to part with a valuable morsel of intelligence took it on the scout because there was paper out on him offering a reward over some little misunderstanding in some other territory. The winter went by with no response to Randy's queries beyond blank faces and shrugs and the occasional fast exit aboard a lathered mount.

This made him poor company even among the women, who had reason enough to hate their own and sense enough to chalk it up to circumstances beyond their control. There followed a long dry spell between feminine comforts.

Frank meanwhile was working for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, grading track and keeping his Winchester handy to pick off Sioux raiding parties through that same buffalo country. It's quite possible that he and Randy spied each other at a distance without realizing it; since the great brutes had grown too wary of man to venture within a thousand yards of a rowdy construction gang, the man who hunted them altered his course wide upon spotting one at work.

True, there were times when these men paused in the midst of reloading or spitting out coffee grounds, turned their faces to the wind, listening—sniffing?—for something familiar and despised, then shook their heads and returned to the necessity of the moment; both were still too new to the sensation of blind hatred to trust their instincts completely. And so once again their reunion depended upon fate.

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