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The Kansas Fast Gun
By Arthur Kent
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 1958 Arthur Kent
All rights reserved.
The sun was a ball of fire sinking behind the Broken Arrow Hills when Dave Frome pushed his bronc through scrub timber carpeting the slopes and through ravines which bubbled with water. As his pony splashed through belly deep he ran his fingers in the water, then put them to his lips. The tasting was unnecessary. The colouring, a rusty red, told him how heavily the water had been contaminated by copper.
The pony lunged up from the ravine, pushed through gaunt cottonwoods, and Frome saw a score of his Broken Arrow steers ahead, bunched by his ramrod, Matt Grape, and two of his crew.
They swung on seeing Frome, and pushed to meet him, faces hooded by grimness.
Grape leaned forward in his saddle. He spat, then inspected Frome's soaked denims, and said: 'Did you see the colour of that water, Dave?'
Frome said casually, 'I did better, I tasted it.'
His apparent lack of concern caused the three men to exchange glances.
Frome looked over the gather. They were poor steers. 'This all of 'em, Matt?'
The ramrod shrugged. 'Could be maybe fifty more scattered in the thickets.'
Frome said: 'Then I'd better comb these thickets with a couple of boys tomorrow.'
Grape smiled thinly. He was small, and looked insignificant and out of place in a saddle. But his face, tanned the colour of old leather, testified to the number of years he'd punched cattle. 'Could be too late tomorrow. Could be the miners will've helped themselves to what beef we've left up here. They've got to eat.'
Frome said softly: 'It'll have to be tomorrow. Nobody need risk a limb in these hills at night for a few scrubs.'
Grape shrugged, and changed the subject. He bent sideways in his saddle, holding on to the pommel, spat, then said, 'Lousy copper taste. Met a Double Star rider at noon. Told me Le Roy's plenty burnt up about these miners. Specially as the news is out that Peter Speakman's arriving to run things. He told me how there was a powwow last night at Le Roy's. All the ranchers were there, but you.'
Frome smiled suddenly. 'Now, Matt, you know I know about the conference Le Roy held. You know I got an invite. And you know I wasn't there because I'm not taking a hand in the starting of gunplay. With me siding them, they'd feel confident enough to tear these hills apart.'
Matt Grape said: 'You're the boss. I don't agree, but I only take orders.' He swung angrily on the two riders. 'What in hell are you two doing? Get these goddam steers shifted!'
The two men swung their ponies away.
'And don't, for Chris'sake, let them steers drink any of that there copper poisoned water.'
Frome had been loose in the saddle, smiling, but suddenly his lips tightened and he balled his pony forward at one of the moving riders.
'Farrow!' he snarled. 'What's that tucked in your Levis belt?'
The boy turned, straightening his waistcoat with his elbow, trying to hide the tell-tale sheen of steel. He was unsuccessful, so he snarled, 'What does it look like, Mister Frome?'
Frome saw the bone grip of a single-action Colt. He said softly, 'You know my orders. Nobody carries a gun on my range.' He swung to Matt Grape. 'How come you allowed Farrow to tote a gun?'
Grape looked surprised. 'Didn't know he had it.'
Frome extended his hand. 'OK, Farrow, hand it over.'
The boy straightened in his saddle. His face was scarlet. 'By hell, I won't. I don't ride these miner-infested hills unarmed for nobody.'
Frome said, 'I gave you a chance, Farrow. You backed down. Be off my land in two hours. I'll send your pay to Plattsville.'
Farrow snarled, 'That's all I've been waiting for.' His hand snaked for the gun in his belt, and he spurred towards Frome, bringing up the gun to pistol-beat him.
Frome's arm snaked upwards. The leather quirt on his wrist snapped like a gun-shot. Farrow gave a little cry and the Colt span from his fingers. The rancher brought his pony skidding round. The two ponies cannoned into each other. Frome's fist came up and chopped at Farrow's jaw. It was all Farrow could do to keep his seat.
Frome jack-knifed down and scooped up the revolver, then sent it spinning into a rock cluster. Without looking at Farrow again, he swung his pony through the herd. Farrow yelled, 'I'll get even with you, Frome,' but the rancher did not look round.
Frome had crossed the ravine when Matt Grape caught him up. The small man leaned sideways in the saddle, studying Frome with a mock intentness like a doctor with his patient. 'Hell, Dave, what's biting at your innards?'
Frome said, 'You know what.'
'Yeah, Dodge six years ago. But did you have to be so hard on Farrow? He's talking sense. You can't expect him to ride these hills gun-less.'
Frome snapped, 'I pay, I give the orders. Those who don't like it can drift.'
Grape scowled, 'You don't make sense. These miners will shortly be cutting down on any cowboy they see. You won't protect your men, and you're letting these sod-shifters destroy your land.'
Frome said, 'The miners won't shoot my boys. They know I'm not arming them.'
'Crap!' Grape growled. 'When this thing blows up, miners ain't going to look to see if a puncher's a Broken Arrow man before spitting lead at him. They can't see straight, any old how, they're burrowing in the dark most days.'
Frome snapped, 'How about getting the gather in?'
'When I'm good and ready,' Grape said. 'I'm just telling you that you can't fence-sit on this one. These hills are either for cows or for digging copper. Ain't room for both.'
'I'm not fence-sitting,' Frome said. 'I'm calling on Speakman as soon as he reaches Plattsville.'
'Chances are he won't see you, let alone take action about contaminating the streams. Only force talks to Speakman, and you don't pack a gun.'
Frome said, 'At least, I'm going to try.'
Grape swung his pony. 'OK, you're the boss.'
'So you keep telling me,' Frome smiled, 'but you're still arguing.'
'Isn't that what friends are for?' Grape grinned, and moved away.
The ramrod was halfway back to the stand of timber when the shot sounded. It was way off, buried and yet magnified by the hills. It could have been a mile away or it could have been three miles. There was no telling, for the hills twisted and distorted sound.
Frome quietened his spooking mount, his head cocked towards the hills. A minute passed, but no further shots followed.
Grape called, 'Hear that? It could've already started.'
Frome answered, 'And it could've been nothing more than a miner getting something for the pot.'
'Yeah,' Grape jeered, 'a Broken Arrow cow. Maybe the cattle are only scrubs up here, but they still wear your brand.'
Frome didn't answer. He watched his ramrod disappear through the timber, then forked his leg across his saddle horn. Water dripped, copper-red, from his damp trousers. He didn't notice it, busy with his thoughts and his Bull Durham bag.
When he had fashioned and lit a cigarette, he straightened in his saddle, his face lined with worry. Leathery wallowing sounds reached him from beyond the timber as the steers smacked down into the water-logged ravines. Frome's gaze went on, climbing the timbered-slopes.
He wondered when it would end, and how. He wondered how much more stock he would need to shift. He wondered how long he could keep his temper if Speakman, as rumoured, extended his mining operations. Frome still had the fast-running Teap River uncontaminated by copper, but the Teap was fed from the hills. If that was contaminated, if he couldn't reach some sort of agreement with the mining company, then it was either put up, or shut up and get out.
And unless he could force a compromise, there would be a clash between the miners and the cow outfits. There wasn't enough water for both. It needed goodwill from both factions.
But could you compromise with Speakman? Speakman had to expand to satisfy his stockholders. That meant he would mine every ounce of copper possible. And ranchers like Glinton Le Roy, soon to be Frome's father-in-law, and the crippled Luke Benson, with Kyle Bennett ramroding for him, wouldn't tolerate that.
Broome, who managed the mines from Plattsville, had been willing to talk peace, but obviously Speakman was against that, otherwise he wouldn't be coming in to run things himself.
Frome thought of the shot he'd heard a moment ago, and it brought the old fear back to him. A memory, six years old, but as clear as on the day it happened, came to him.
His hands tightened on the saddle pommel as he remembered the meadow outside Dodge City. The acrid bite of cordite fumes hung sluggishly in the air. The bodies lay side by side in the field around the dead horses.
Frome's father had died very quickly. But judging by the scattered cartridge cases, his three brothers had put up a fight, formed in a ring, pumping shells from carbines and handguns until the hammers clicked on empty magazines. Then they had fallen beneath the withering fire of shotgun, carbine and revolver.
It had been a carefully planned massacre, and Frome had sewn the seeds of that action when, two days before, he'd beaten a Stuart to the draw on Dodge's Front Street, and dropped him dying in the mud.
The dispute between the two families had started over a narrow slash of land which separated their properties.
A day after the ambush, when Frome had been laying plans for revenge, a smiling official of the Land Office drove up in a buckboard.
Neither the Stuarts nor the Fromes had title to the disputed land, he explained, because the Government held it. One day they would build a road there.
Frome had sold up and ridden out of Kansas an hour later. He hadn't carried a gun since.CHAPTER 2
It was dark when Frome reached his home valley. Lamplight dripped from the windows of the bunkhouse, the cookshack, and his ranch cabin. As he came down the track and swung to the corral, the clatter of pots and pans told him Long Will was busy in the cookhouse.
Frome hesitated as he swung at the corral. He saw the paint pony tethered at the pole outside his cabin. The paint belonged to Hesta Le Roy. Normally, when she called, she stayed the evening, and would release the paint in the corral.
Frome unsaddled the pony, released it into the corral, and moved towards his cabin. Long Will saw him, however, and came hurrying from his kitchen.
'Miss Hesta's visiting, Dave,' he said, 'but she ain't aiming to stay long. And here's me baking a new-fangled pie. You two been a quarrelling?'
'Well, you turn on that Kansas charm, son, and tell her about the new kind of apple pie I've cooked.'
Frome smiled, nodded. 'But there's nothing new about apple pie,' he added.
'Is about this one, Dave, I didn't use apples.'
Frome reached the cabin, stepped across the veranda and into the long room. A large logfire competed with a bolt lamp to light the room.
Frome knew where Hesta would be sitting, but he didn't look directly that way as he crossed the room to his bedroom, unbuttoning his shirt.
'Dave?' she said. He turned then. She was sitting on the hide settee before the fire, fingers lacing through her strawberry blonde curls, her long legs extended across the carpet, spurs inward so they wouldn't welt the carpet.
Frome smiled a greeting. The smile with which she'd welcomed him left her face. 'You weren't at the meeting?'
'No.' He hesitated at the door.
'You needn't kiss me until you have washed, Dave,' she said. 'I can't stand copper.'
He hid his hurt, moved into the bedroom, and stripped off his shirt. First Matt Grape, Farrow, and now Hesta, he thought grimly.
He reached the hand basin and poured water from the jug of still hot water Long Will had placed there. He was busy with the soap when she came across, looked at him, and stood by the door.
'I'm sorry, Dave,' she whispered, 'that wasn't a nice thing to say.'
'Skip it,' he said. 'So I wasn't at the meeting. So what went on, as if I couldn't guess?' He saw her stiffen, and he pushed it. 'Everybody talked violence. Chiswick said if he was thirty years younger he'd buckle on guns and ride like hell. And everybody said "Goddam it, where's Frome?"'
'All right, Dave,' she said softly, 'so you know your neighbours. And you're in the same kind of trouble. Frankly I don't understand your position.'
'It's so very simple,' he said. 'You've heard it so many times. I don't want violence.'
There was a pause. Frome rinsed the soap from his face, arms and neck. Then she said, 'Tell me something, Dave. Tell me why there are no guns on this ranch?'
'On the rack behind you,' Frome said, 'you'll see four or five hunting rifles.'
'I don't mean toy guns.'
'No need for bigger guns,' Frome answered laconically, 'Indians haven't given trouble in fifteen years.'
'You're avoiding the question,' she said softly. She looked at him with puzzled eyes. 'Surely what Kyle Bennett said about you wasn't true?'
Frome smiled sardonically. 'I wouldn't know what he said, but I can make a shrewd guess.'
'All right,' she snapped, 'and the fact he labelled you coward doesn't worry you?'
Frome began to dry himself. 'Why should it worry me?'
She stamped her foot. 'How can you say that?'
He smiled. 'I am saying it. I can't go into action every time some two-bit gunslinger says something unkind about me.'
She flushed. 'Kyle Bennett isn't a two-bit gunslinger!'
Frome smiled. 'Sorry, I was forgetting he's your cousin and you were once almost engaged. But he's still small potatoes to me.'
'And what do you mean by that?'
'I mean that he and his crippled boss are one of a kind. I mean that when mavericks drift on to Luke Benson's Muleshoe lands, he and Kyle never run them back. I also suspect that they aren't slow in running off branded stock if the opportunity's right.'
'Nonsense!' she snorted.
Frome smiled. 'Did you defend me with equal vehemence when Kyle criticized me last night?'
She blushed. She said, 'I. ... I didn't have to. Denny defended you.'
Frome smiled. 'Good for Denny. Your brother's the brightest of the bunch. He'll make a good boss for Double Star.'
She turned from the door then. She frowned, looked back, and said, 'Although we're engaged, Dave, I don't know a lot about you, do I? I know only vaguely where you came from, where you've been, what you've done.'
Frome buttoned a white shirt, moved to the door, and began to close it. 'It's a long story. One day I'll tell it to you. Now go and crack a whip behind Long Will, while I change.'
She smiled, nodded, and Frome closed the door.
While he changed, he pondered a problem. Only two people in the county knew of the incident at Dodge – Matt Grape and Sheriff Sam Justin. But Frome had never told Hesta, and now he wondered why he'd always drawn back at the very moment he was about to tell her. It seemed strange that he couldn't find the courage to tell the story to the girl he would shortly marry.
Hesta was halfway across the room to meet him when he came from the bedroom. 'Dave,' she said, 'Farrow's outside. Mad or drunk. He's threatening to kill you!'
Frome headed across the room and on to the veranda. He saw the boy in the glow of the light from the room. Farrow sat on a pony a yard from the step, a bottle of whiskey in one hand, a twenty-two sporting rifle in the other. He sent a stream of curses as Frome stepped forward.
Frome snapped, 'Button up, Farrow, there's a lady present.'
The boy swung, head jutting. 'Why, look at that, old yeller-belly telling me to button up. Now you look here, Mister Gun-Shy, I've got me a rabbit gun, and you'd better run and hide on account you're a rabbit.'
Frome said, 'You've got thirty seconds to ride, Farrow.'
'I'm going, Gun-Shy, and I ain't the only one. Nobody'll work for you much longer.' He saw Hesta in the doorway. 'Nor marry you, I reckon.'
'Right, you've said your piece. Now ride.'
Farrow grinned, brought the rifle up. He didn't finish the move. Frome lunged from the step and hit the pony in the side. The horse jack-knifed and came up on its forelegs, spilling the drunk from the saddle.
The spooked animal skidded away. Frome picked up the rifle, and began to jerk the cartridges from the magazine, spilling them on the ground. Then he threw the empty repeater into the brush, dragged the shaken Farrow up by his shirt front, and snapped, 'Start walking, Farrow. Don't let me find you on my land again.'
Excerpted from The Kansas Fast Gun by Arthur Kent. Copyright © 1958 Arthur Kent. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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